Daniel Catan is remembered
Daniel Catán’s sudden death last month from an apparent heart attack has the left the Los Angeles music community, and especially Los Angeles Opera, bereft. His fourth opera, “Il Postino,” opened the company’s 25th season in the fall. It was a hit, the least troubled and most successful of the company’s premieres.
At a tribute to Catán that the company held Monday evening in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Plácido Domingo recalled his friendship with the composer and described what “Postino,” in which he starred as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, meant for him. “The role of Neruda was one of the highlights of my long career,” the tenor said, fighting back tears.
Domingo’s remarks were followed by short excerpts from Catán’s four operas, featuring some of the company’s finest young singers, with piano accompaniment. By coincidence on Sunday afternoon, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra ended its season at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall with a program, “México Sinfónico,” that included three Catán instrumental scores along with Silvestre Reveultas’ classic “La Noche de los Mayas” (The Night of the Mayas).
Domingo described Catán as a maker of melodies that are a joy to sing and as a composer who could readily reach the hearts of his audience. All of his operas had a Latin American soul. His first, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” was based on a short story by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “Florencia” was inspired by the magical realism of the Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez. “Salsipuedes, A Tale of Love, War and Anchovies” is a Caribbean fantasy.
The opera excerpts offered tuneful, warm, moving music. “Rappaccini,” which San Diego Opera performed in 1994 three years after its Mexico City premiere, has a haunting score and is worthy of revival. “Salsipuedes” is a riot of color, and Domingo indicated his interest in it for L.A. Opera. “Postino” will surely come back.
The letter scene from “Postino” was sung by baritone Vladimir Chernov, who was the postmaster in the production, and the outstanding young tenor Daniel Montenegro (accompanied by pianist Nino Sanikidze). It had an autumnal quality now that we know the opera to be Catán’s last work. Likewise, the opera’s Intermezzo for oboe d’amore and orchestra, which Sara Beck played with the Santa Cecilia, proved poignantly elegiac.
But it was the other odd bits that revealed a more multifaceted composer. Santa Cecilia, founded and led by Sonia Marie De León de Vega, began with Catán’s cinematic Overture to “El Vuelo de “Águila,” a popular Mexican telenovela in the '90s. But shortly before writing that Catán had spent a year in Japan studying Kabuki and Noh theater, and “Encantamiento,” for a soloist playing two recorders, came from that journey.
The L.A. Opera memorial began with an arrangement of “Encantamiento” that Catán made for flute and harp, exquisitely played by flutist Salpy Kerkonian and harpist Andrea Puente Catán, the composer’s widow. A work that in the recorder version sounds sort of like Japanese court music given an Aztec accent now gets an intriguing dose of French Impressionism.
The other Catán piece on De León de Vega’s program was “Caribbean Airs,” a feisty concerto for three percussionists commissioned by the Pacific Symphony four years ago. De León de Vega is a conductor with a firm rhythmic grip, but her soloists seemed to be reading and not reacting. The conductor, however, turned up the heat for Reveultas’ magnificent score and ended with a bang.
L.A. Opera ended with wistfulness. Although not scheduled to sing, Domingo was joined by Grant Gershon at the piano for Catán’s song “Comprendo,” which is heard as pre-recorded background music over the radio in “Postino” (and was sung in the production by Rolando Villazón). Then soprano Amanda Squitieri sang a Catán song with a lyrics asking for no sad songs “when I am dead.”
That request was not met.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: Above, Harpist Andrea Puente Catán performing at the Los Angeles Opera tribute to her late husband at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Monday; below, Plácido Domingo. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times