The late composer Daniel Catán’s 1996 Spanish-language opera “Florencia en El Amazonas”, has been revived in a new co-production between the Washington National Opera (where the production debuted in September 2014), the Los Angeles Opera and the San Francisco Opera.
The lushly-scored, romantically melodic work is a Latin American fantasy about three couples, two present on stage, and one that exists only in the memory of the lead character, an opera singer, Florencia Grimaldi.
[I have commented extensively on the opera in a review of a different production of it at A Florid, Flowing “Florencia” in Salt Lake City – Utah Opera, January 19, 2013, that I recommend to anyone wishing to supplement their information on the opera.]
Verónica Villarroel’s Florencia
The title character, Florencia Grimaldi, is a Brazilian opera singer, who is returning to the Amazonian town of Manaus to sing in its opera house, where her international career began.
Self-absorbed in her long career, she regrets having lost contact with the one man – a collector of rare Amazonian butterflies – with whom she had a youthful passionate affair.
[Below: Verónica Villarroel as Francesca Grimaldi; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]
For a role that will remind many opera-goers of the great dramatic soprano roles of Puccini, his Italian verismo contemporaries, and such French composers as Poulenc (e.g. “La Voix Humaine”), the Los Angeles Opera cast Chilean spinto soprano Verónica Villarroel.
One of the five (of seven) principals who are native Spanish speakers, Villarroel made a strong impression as the diva Florencia, displaying the power and expressiveness we associate with this gifted soprano [see my review of her as a Puccini heroine at Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007.]
The Story of the El Dorado’s Passengers
The entire opera is centered around the cruise of a steam-powered riverboat, the El Dorado, down the Amazon from its embarkation port of Leticia, Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, where a small, but extravagant, regional opera house was built. (A picture of the opera house appears in my previous review, referenced above.)
[Below: Florencia (Verónica Villarroel, left) learns from the Captain (David Pittsinger, right) what he believes to be the ultimate fate of her lover from long ago; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Florencia has had a successful career, but she has come to regret her isolation from the only person with whom she was ever intimate.
Through her monologues and some exposition by the steamship’s Captain (nicely sung by bass-baritone David Pittsinger) and the Captain’s mysterious crewman Riolobo (Jose Calbo), we learn that Florencia believes her vocal abilities were the result of her love for Cristobol (who does not appear in the opera and whose fate we never definitively learn).
[Below: The river steamship El Dorado begins its voyage with, on the upper deck Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, left), Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins, right) and Paula (Nancy Fabiola-Herrera, second from right), and, on the lower deck Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, left) and Florencia (Verónica Villarroel, right);; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Florencia is contrasted with a long married couple, Paula (stunningly played by Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (sung with the authority American Wagnerian baritone Gordon Hawkins).
A storm results in the Alvaro falling overboard into the Amazon and Paula’s hysteria and regret that their recent encounters had been so adversarial. Fortunately, the next morning he is found alive and their frayed relationship repairs itself.
[Below: The married couple Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera, left) and Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins, right) find themselves disaffected from one another; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In addition there are two single persons on board – the writer Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, an American soprano, who is a native speaker of Spanish) and the Captain’s disaffected nephew (Mexican lyric tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz).
Rosalba and Arcadio, neither of whom intended to seek a mate at that time, find themselves attracted to each other. Encouraged by Florencia and the other passengers, they find themselves falling in love. The fresh, lyrical voices of Oropesa and Chacón-Cruz blended beautifully in Catán’s lushly romantic duets.
[Below: Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, left) and Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) unexpectedly find themselves attracted to one another; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Were the opera’s libretto focused only on the Captain, his nephew and the four passengers, it would be a domestic drama advocating for young love and a continued renewal of its powers.
However, attempting to experience the opera by concentrating on the stories of the El Dorado’s passengers is arguably a sub-optimal way to experience the opera, because “Florencia” also interacts with a surreal world of beings that inhabit the Amazon.
The Story of the Amazon’s Magic Elements
One might think of it as two operas that have been merged into one – the story of the passengers, and the magical story that takes place simultaneously.
One of its characters, Riolobo, has a supernatural relationship with the river and shifts between the two. As the ship’s crew, in his white uniform, he serves dinner, takes the wheel from the Captain, and is an able mate for myriad tasks.
But he also flies through the air, descending from on high with wings. and communes with five beings (played by dancers) who obviously represent the mysterious forces that abound in the Amazon jungle. Calbo’s pleasing lyric baritone defined the humanity of the character, even as the brilliant staging of his flight from above defined its magic.
[Below: Jose Carbo as Riolobo; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The five dancers personify the river’s magic. They seize things that fall overboard (Rosalba’s notebook and a champagne bottle containing wedding rings). They conjure the storm that swamps the ship. They pull Alvaro overboard, then help protect so that he can emerge alive from the water the next day.
Two Stories: How “Florencia” Evolved
Critics differ on the exact musical influences contained in Catán’s orchestral sound and vocal writing, even though agreeing that Catán’s music is a departure from the musical styles of most of the mid-20th century opera. (Whatever its musical derivation, one cannot imagine a more beautiful realization of Catán’s intent than that of the Los Angeles Opera under the affectionate conducting of Grant Gershon.)
Evidence for the case that Catán echoes the late Romantic styles of Italian and French opera, while forging new musical directions, may be found in his essay entitled “On How I Found Florencia and Got to the Amazon” (contained in the Los Angeles Opera program notes and on the website www.laopera.org).
Catán’s essay also confirms that the magical elements were developed first, and that the stories of Florencia and the passengers evolved later.
“In 1994 [Catán writes] I had just had a successful performance in San Diego of “Rappacini’s Daughter”, my second opera . . . In order to capture the essential magic of the garden in which that opera [Rappacini’s Daughter] is set, . . I needed to write music that was seductive, glittering, mesmerizing. So I developed a way of writing for the orchestra, the woodwinds in particular, that seemed to capture the feel of that magical garden [so] I started to look for a subject that would allow me to pursue these magical sounds.”
[Below: three of the dancers who represent the magic of the Amazon River; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
As Catán pursued his idea of the tinta of an opera for which he had not yet found a story, Catán was strongly influenced by the stories of the Amazon by his friend, Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, then living, as was Catán, in Mexico.
Once Catán began to imagine setting his new opera in the Amazon “the music [he] had imagined for Rappaccini’s garden now started to grow and develop into the most varied orchestral colors”.
He then began to add the exotic sounds of African, Caribbean and Brazilian instruments, and brought all these influences together by conceptualizing the magical journey of the steamship El Dorado down the Amazon.
When Catán received the commission from the Houston Grand Opera to create a Spanish language opera, the team associated with the original Houston Grand Opera production [as well as the new production seen in Los Angeles] was assembled. The team included stage director Francesca Zambello, set designer Robert Israel and Costume Designer Catherine Zuber.
[Below: Stage Director Francesca Zambello; edited image of a Martin Voss photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Unlike many operatic commissions, the production team was involved at a very early stage, even before the libretto (by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, a student of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work influenced the story) was written. The team visited the parts of Colombian Amazon in which the opera was to be based (the very first scene taking place at the Leticia, Colombia wharf, was directly influenced by their visit.)
The Continued Success of “Florencia”
The opera is now 18 years old and has been presented and received well by audiences in the major opera companies of Houston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington. It will travel soon to the San Francisco Opera.
The new production continues to refine the opera’s staging.
Since the focus of the audience’s attention for most of the opera is the El Dorado its slow movement through the Amazon waters is effectively shown by changes in our point of view – sometimes the ship’s bow, then its port and starboard, or stern – always with appropriate changes in the projections so that what we are seeing corresponds with whether we are viewing upriver or downriver.
The integration of the dancing of the river spirits with the action on deck is superbly choreographed.
I recommend the opera as an accessible contemporary work, which is mounted with an excellent cast.
Those new to the opera should prepare oneself for accepting the integration of the human stories with the fantastic elements. By accepting both the opera’s human and magical stories, one’s experience will be enhanced.