Continuing with her effort to modernize and update her company, Florida Grand Opera general director Susan Danis closes the troupe’s 77th season with Florencia en el Amazonas, the 1996 magic-realist opera by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán.
Although set in the grandeur of the Amazon River as a boat wends its way to the city of Manaus in northwestern Brazil, Florencia is essentially a chamber opera for seven people, and it relies on their strength for its success. FGO’s Florencia, fortunately, has a fine cast of singers who ably handle the highly emotive, big-gesture demands of the score.
Based generally on Love in the Time of Cholera by the Colombian master Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the opera tells the story of Florencia Grimaldi, a renowned opera diva who has come out of a career hiatus to sing at the Manaus opera house, having been thrown off her career track by the disappearance of her lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who has vanished into the Amazon wilderness.
On the boat with her is a couple, Alvaro and Paula, who are having problems; a young Florencia-obsessed journalist, Rosalba, who is writing a book about the singer; the ship’s captain and his nephew Arcadio, a young man dissatisfied with the current direction of his life, and Riolobo, a character who is at once a crew member and a Shakespeare-style chorus who navigates the transition between the real world and the world of magic.
On the way to Manaus, the boat is temporarily grounded by a powerful storm, and when it at last arrives in Manaus, the passengers do not disembark because a cholera epidemic is ravaging the city. But it is the relationships that matter; Alvaro and Paula reconcile, and Rosalba and Arcadio throw aside their fears and commit to a relationship. Florencia does not find Cristóbal, but at the end, she declares that his love has freed her voice and enabled her to sing.
The opera premiered in 1996 in Houston, and was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major American company. It has become increasingly popular in the world’s opera houses; Catán’s widow (he died in 2011) was at opening night Saturday in Miami, and had just come from another performance of the work by Madison Opera in Wisconsin (starring Miami’s own Elizabeth Caballero in the title role). It has a lush, tonal score that people are immediately drawn to.
As Florencia, the Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez sang with plenty of power and a pleasant dark timbre to her voice that gave her character the extra maturity it needs for her interaction with Rosalba, who takes rather a long time to realize that the mysterious woman on the boat is in fact the singer she’s obsessed with. She came across with benevolence and warmth for the most part, and rarely like a woman in the midst of emotional turmoil, but it didn’t seem to hurt the impact of the story.
As Rosalba, the Nevada soprano Cecilia Violetta López was thoroughly charming. Small of stature and an actress who was believably frenetic about her two years’ of work on a Florencia biography, Lopez started off singing softly but opened up as the opera progressed. She has a pretty, appealing voice ideal for romantic characters, and it blended well with that of her Arcadio.
Russian mezzo Mariya Kaganskaya, one of the three FGO Studio Artists in the cast, was a fine Paula. It was good to hear her voice at some length in this role, having appeared earlier this season in a much briefer assignment as the Page in Salome. Kaganskaya was persuasively stunned by the apparent loss of Alvaro in the storm, and her singing voice has a firmness and strength to it that was well-suited for Paula.
The Texas baritone Steven LaBrie, as Riolobo, had perhaps the most powerful voice on stage Saturday night. It’s a dark, cutting instrument that has what baritones in big character roles need: A tenor-like forcefulness and clarity with the resonance of a bass. He is in enviably good physical shape, too, and muscled shirtlessness gave his character another bit of distance from the sailing urbanites in Edwardian getup.
Andrew Bidlack, who has been seen several times in major roles at FGO, was a very good Arcadio, an actor who knows how to take command of a scene and get the audience to home in. He has a virile and exciting tenor that was a pleasure to hear, and he was excellent in duet with López. Minnesota baritone William Lee Bryan, another Studio Artist, was a fine Alvaro, with a big, broad voice and good stage comportment; the Brazilian bass-baritone Rafael Porto, the other Studio Artist, was an admirable and well-sung Captain.
The Argentine director Jose Maria Condemi stages the show across the length of the boat, and usually puts his performers more or less up in the neighborhood of the upstage railing. The performers get a little lost in all that open space, but some of that is mitigated by the projections designed by Aaron Rhyne in this co-production originally created by Opera Colorado and Utah Opera. The projections consist of intriguing shots of what could very well be the Amazon, and the boat moves slowly across the stage along with the images on the back screen, which works most of the time, though on opening night one got the sense that the two parts were not quite coordinated where they were supposed to be.
FGO principal conductor Ramón Tebar led the orchestra, which sounded excellent, and out of which he coaxed an all-out, sweeping post-Romantic sound. Katherine Kozak’s chorus didn’t have a lot to do, but what they did do they did well, especially in the opening of the opera, as a crowd watching passengers climb aboard the boat, cannily named the El Dorado.
In general, then, this was a strongly sung and played, decently staged reading of this contemporary opera. Its major asset is also its major drawback: Catán’s score. In his program note, Condemi says the music bears the influences of Puccini, Ravel and Debussy, but in reality there is almost no Ravel or Debussy; it’s all Puccini. It is a score overwhelmingly influenced by parts of La Fanciulla del West, Il Tabarro and Turandot (to my ears anyway), all blended together in a kind of Puccini Velveeta that goes basically nowhere for two hours, though it is undeniably pretty and beautifully orchestrated.
Catán’s music lacks two things Puccini had: Memorable melody and an ability to punctuate the drama by creating different music for different characters and situations. Even the storm music sounds like an extension of the music that comes before and after, not something that sharply breaks with it and re-engages the ear. Much of this opera sounds like Puccini’s buildup music to a melodic climax, but one in which the big tune never arrives.
That said, this is undeniably an opera that has legs, and that companies are eager to stage, for a lot of important reasons such as its Spanish-language text, its interesting story, its juicy parts for the women in particular, and a score that sounds so much like late Puccini that audiences embrace it. In the long run, it doesn’t have the melodic power it needs to remain a part of the permanent repertory, but it in the shorter run, its future is clearly bright, and FGO deserves credit for presenting it.
One side note: FGO hosts “talk backs” after the opera in which audience members can ask questions of the production staff, and ostensibly the cast. But I’ve been to each of the talk backs, and only production people are there, not the cast. The audience that stays comes up with good questions about directorial choices and the like, but what they’re waiting for is a chance to see members of the cast, and that’s really who should be featured at these post-performance events.
FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS can be seen Friday and Saturday night at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami’s Arsht Center complex. Both performances start at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.