Into the heart of darkness: The riverboat journey in Florencia is as much a psychological trip as a literal one down the Amazon.
Into the heart of darkness: The riverboat journey in Florencia is as much a psychological trip as a literal one down the Amazon.
George Hixson

Full Steam Ahead

The unusual blend of reality and fantasy found in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez can be transferred to Hollywood's big screen with palpable realism. But translating the literary style known as magical realism into the language of the stage isn't so easy. Like Greek tragedy, grand opera prefers the superhuman to the human, the mythical to the mundane.

Four seasons after its world premiere here, Houston Grand Opera has revived Mexican composer Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas, an unusual Spanish-language opera about a small party that journeys along the Amazon River toward a legendary opera house in Brazil. The tale is derived in part from Márquez's fantastical book Love in the Time of Cholera. Piecing together bizarre, slightly surreal happenings in the life of average folks still presents a challenge for Francesca Zambello, who conceived the original 1996 production.

In translating the supernatural elements written into Marcela Fuentes-Berain's libretto, the HGO creative team must have struggled with the obvious limitations of the stage. Still, their choice of props to represent key motifs connected to nature and the Amazon prove disappointing. Fortunately, conductor Patrick Summers's confident handling of the cast and HGO Orchestra and Andrew Morton's expert direction of the ensemble scenes undercut the distortion of some fantastical elements.


Florencia en el Amazonas

Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue

Through Sunday, May 13. (713)227-ARTS. $22-$200

Set during the early 1900s, Florencia follows a small party of travelers aboard a steamboat that travels along the Amazon bound for the celebrated opera house in Manaus, Brazil. The passengers include a bickering middle-aged couple, Paula (American mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán) and Alvaro (American baritone Hector Vasquez); Rosalba (American soprano Ana Maria Martinez), a journalist working on a biography of famed opera diva Florencia Grimaldi (American soprano Patricia Schuman); as well as Grimaldi herself, who is traveling incognito.

In making the journey, Grimaldi hopes to reunite with Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter she once loved but then abandoned to the jungle in favor of her career. Riolobo (American bass-baritone Mark S. Doss), a supernatural spirit of the Amazon, acts as the narrator who conveys the travelers' motives, fears and desires, and reminds us that the journey itself is also an interior, psychological one for Grimaldi and the others.

Although it eventually grows static, set designer Robert Israel's rotating steamship effectively communicates movement downriver. But as the story slips into the fantastical realm, the production occasionally falls short. Killer piranhas are represented by camouflaged dancing "river" characters who carry flags painted with garish red fishes. While the movements of the river people are well choreographed by Angela Scimonelli, their props corrupt the mood. Rather than inspire fear, they project a cartoonish image.

In another scene, square boxes with cutouts of the sun and moon detract from lighting designer Paul Pyant's multicolored horizons. And what's supposed to be cherry-colored rain appears instead as glittering bits of confetti, and as such, shatter the mystical illusion that builds during a perilous lightning storm.

What redeems this cascade of ill-chosen props is Pyant's use of vivid hues and dappled effects, which manage to preserve the illusive qualities of the story. Also satisfying is English director Morton's clever staging, which comically juxtaposes the quibbling Paula and Alvaro against the budding romance between Rosalba and the captain's nephew, Arcadio (former HGO studio member Chad Shelton).

Memorable musical moments include the well-timed comic strains of Guzmán and Vasquez at their most miserable. As Rosalba, Martinez's soprano sounds especially alluring in her duets with Shelton, whose facile tenor converts his frustration with riverboat life into fiery expressions of love for the journalist. Schuman's carefully modulated soprano balances melancholy moods early on with hopeful optimism toward the story's end. The timbre of Doss's bass-baritone nicely evokes a mythical world of conjuring spirits and surreal adventure. He easily fits into the type of supernatural character that has paraded on the stage for three centuries.

Unlike those who adapt magical realism to film, theater producers struggle to find a way to render the real alongside the surreal. For all of its visual confusion, Catán's tuneful opera, with its hypnotic instrumental coloring, achieves a sort of primacy that no props or set design can ruin.


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