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Puccini soup

I wrote recently about discovering that the composer Daniel Catán had died over a year ago. Catán, who was born in Mexico but eventually became an American citizen, was best known for his operas. I've long been a huge fan of Florencia en el Amazonas and Rappaccini's Daughter, and since learning of his death I've been slowly absorbing the last opera he completed, Il Postino.

I've also been digging into the intertubes to try to find out more about him, and the deeper I dig the more I run into people who are at least mildly disdainful of his music. You can see the nature of the beast in a memorial article by LA Times music critic Mark Swed, "An Appreciation: Daniel Catán, caring composer":

He had a sterling music education and received a PhD in music composition from Princeton University, where he studied with the ultra-Modernist master of complexity and taskmaster Milton Babbitt. Soon after, Catán returned to his hometown of Mexico City for a while and it looked as though that he might become a kind of Mexican post-Modernist. That certainly seemed the case in 1991 with his rhapsodic "Rappaccini's Daughter," his first opera. Based on the writing of the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, it heralded what many of us had hoped would be a much-needed new voice in Latin opera.

You can probably already see where this is going:

Catán had moved to the Los Angeles area by the time of his second opera, "Florencia en el Amazonas," written for Houston Grand Opera. After the 1996 premiere, a German colleague who had flown in from Frankfurt to cover it joined me for a drink in a Houston hotel. He was distraught. How, he bewailed, was he going to explain to his editor that he had spent all this money to come to Texas for what he called in English "Puccini soup."

There are a couple of things about this that strike me as hilarious. First, "Puccini soup' is a great phrase. But beyond that, and beyond the petty pathos of the betrayed avant gardist, when I look at the Seattle Opera's upcoming season, what do I see? Three works by Puccini. And so Swed goes on to remark:

Catán had changed. But despite a Magic Realist-manqué librettist and too much pretty music, this proved attractive and effective opera, fresh in its lack of cynicism, that resonated with audiences for a reason. Still, I figured "Amazonas" would be a slight detour demanded by Houston. Catán, after all, was a Princeton progressive with Milton Babbitt's stamp of approval. But what Catán later told me was that what Babbitt taught him was to be himself. With "Amazonas," Catán had achieved the courage of his convictions.

"Too much pretty music." Heaven forfend! But there's another interesting aspect of this to me as well. Catán is compared to Puccini probably more than to any other artist, but to my relatively uneducated ear there's also a lot of Debussy in his music. This mostly has to do with the chromaticism and the swelling, upwelling dynamic structures, but I was reminded of something else when another critic said he wished Catán were in fact more like Puccini and less like Debussy. His complaint was that the arias, while extremely lyrical, are not something you can pull out as a single great song. Thus they are more like Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande where there isn't any recitative, but where there aren't really any arias either. Every vocal line is melodic, but never in a songlike, verse-chorus-verse structure.

Which I think exhausts my knowledge on this subject for the present moment. So far I'm not as keen on Il Postino as the other two Catán operas I've heard, but I'm still digesting it. The best parts (particularly the finale) are just as wonderful, and I'm fascinated by it as a work of adaptation as well.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't be able to make my own judgment of Catán's work without a lot of digesting of my own, particularly as Pucciniesque opera is not my native idiom, and I have no time to do it justice now, so I'm not even going to start.

But I can say a little bit about Swed's judgment. The thing is, there's good retro music and there's bad retro music, and it's not clear to me if Swed is criticizing Catán's entire direction or making that distinction.

On the one hand, to complain that "a Princeton progressive with Milton Babbitt's stamp of approval" is writing "too much pretty music" does sound as if one expects him to write like Babbitt. That would be rather foolish. For one thing, even Arnold Schoenberg, the original 20th century avant-garde pied piper, like Babbitt taught his students to be themselves. Schoenberg also rather famously said that there was still plenty of good music to be written in C Major, and in later years he even wrote a little of it himself.

On the other hand, Swed liked Rappaccini's Daughter, which he calls "rhapsodic," and you like it too, with no indication of a vast distinction in style between it and Amazonas. So perhaps Swed is saying that Catán had once succeeded at merging accessibility with substance, but that he later failed at being anything other than merely pretty, that "Puccini soup" doesn't merely mean "sounds like Puccini" but "sounds like Puccini and isn't very good, either." Swed can't be entirely allergic to the retro if he acknowledges that Amazonas is "attractive".

So maybe Swed's complaint is not that Catán turned to evoking Puccini, but that his later work evokes Puccini's surface and no longer his substance. And the disappointment is on finding that Catán "being himself" is being (in Swed's view) a superficial composer where Catán had the ability to do much more.

Edited at 2012-12-12 10:20 pm (UTC)
Dec. 12th, 2012 10:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks for these thoughtful comments. One thing that's striking to me about Swed's article is that it's utterly lacking in any kind of serious musical analysis. I say that as someone who is incapable of serious musical analysis myself, but I'd be curious to see something deeper than "too much pretty music". Later he says of Il Postino "it was a little sappy in places", and that a mutual friend "tried to move Catán in a slightly more musically pointed direction". The subdued accusation here seems to be that Catán's music is vapid, but I'm not really sure.

Rappacini's Daughter is much darker both musically and emotionally than Florencia en el Amazonas or Il Postino, but yes, I think it shares a rhapsodic quality with Floriencia especially. Maybe what these critics want is that dark tone. But I'd also point out that both Florencia and Il Postino feature deaths, and the death in Il Postino is quite tragic. Still, I'd agree that it's sentimental, as is the source it is adapting, and that's a sticking point with me so far. On the other hand, I can't really understand the complaint that Florencia is too pretty. It feels like code for "too tonal" or something. Too me it's rapturous. I'd like to hear Swed more say more about what he sees as the difference between Rappacini's Daughter and the other two. More discordant?
Dec. 12th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
Clearly Swed hears some vital distinction between the two operas that you don't. And this comment helps to suggest what it might be. Yes, maybe the dark tone in Rappacini's Daughter is what canceled out any move towards vapidity (yes, I suspect that's a good term for what Swed hears) in the later operas. And past experience suggests to me that rapturousness, if one is not moved by it in a particular work, is enough to earn a complaint like "too pretty" without tonality as such entering into the question.
Dec. 12th, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
I guess I'd also want to draw the critic into a discussion of Florencia's source in Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I'm not sure what he means by "a Magic Realist-manqué librettist", which he seems to intend as a slam. Does he even know that the libretto is based on works by Garcia Marquez, and specifically Love in the Time of Cholera? To me the tone of the opera is very appropriate to the literary source.

His comment about the libretto of Rappacini's Daughter makes it seem that he doesn't know Octavio Paz's play was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, but perhaps that's neither here nor there. On the other hand, Il Postino is also an adaptation of an adaptation, which I find at least intellectually interesting. It just feels to me that Swed didn't engage the subject very deeply. Then again, it's a short article for a newspaper.

By way of contrast, here's the review of Florencia that makes the comparison to Puccini and Debussy I referred to earlier:

"Florencia en el Amazonas" is, in a word, beautiful. Free from the mawkish sentimentality that too often passes for beauty in today's world of pop ballads, film scores, and Disneyfied neo-Romanticism, "Florencia" possesses the artful beauty of traditional opera; a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification. Comparisons with late Puccini are inevitable and certainly apt, but much of Catán's score touches upon the flowing Impressionism of Debussy and the vibrant colors of Ravel as well. It also contains some engaging touches quite compelling to the modern ear -- frequent marimbas add a slightly exotic flavor, and the percussion section underscores the music with intriguing Latin rhythms. Catán scores the opera for a relatively small orchestra, which adds a sense of precision and punch -- the strings never dominate, and each instrument is clearly articulated. The music simply shimmers, occasionally opening up into an expanse of surging sound, floating the vocals aloft on an iridescent wave of color.

Happily, Catán's vocal writing is well-matched to his orchestral fluency. Catán is a believer in old-school lyricism, and while much may be said for the astringent vocal gymnastics or Broadway influences of some modern opera, it comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure, unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace, voices entwine around each other like lovers, and not a line feels clumsy or out of place. Still, while "Florencia's" lyricism might represent a welcome return to the Italian mode, there's really no single moment that particularly stands out. If "Florencia" has echoes of both "Turandot" and "Pelléas et Mélisande," I would have liked to hear a little more of the former than the latter, at least in the vocal writing.

This review doesn't mention the use of harp, which I believe is also featured in Rappacini's Daughter. I'm pretty sure Catán's wife was a harpist. The one piece of chamber music that I know he composed is a short piece for harp and flute called "Encantamiento".
Dec. 13th, 2012 06:32 am (UTC)
That's excellent descriptive musical prose: it leaves me in no doubt whatever what the music must sound like.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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