Amazon Arias

When Houston Grand Opera commissioned Mexican composer Daniel Catan to produce Florencia en el Amazonas, HGO director David Gockley envisioned a work in Spanish that would capture the culture and flavor of South America. He also said he wanted a work that would be the most beautiful opera created in the last 50 years.

Well, Florencia, which had its world premiere at the Wortham Center last Friday, succeeds at least partially in meeting Gockley's lofty objectives. Catan has indeed composed an opera of considerable beauty. His score for Florencia is reminiscent of the music of Giacomo Puccini and, to a lesser extent, Richard Strauss. And the music's Latin elements are effective in conjuring up images of South America.

But whether this is the most beautiful opera written in the last 50 years is debatable. Admittedly, there isn't a whole lot of competition; most modern operas are characterized by a screeching dissonance that sends many audience members scurrying for the exits. Anyone who's turned off by such attempts to stay on the cutting edge will find Florencia a welcome relief.

Still, while beautiful, the music of Florencia has a certain sameness that at times can be numbing. Moreover, the arias tend to be indistinguishable from the recitatives, and the work falls short in sustaining dramatic interest. Parts of the first act, in particular, tend to drag.

In all fairness, however, this is a work that probably needs to be seen and heard more than once to be fully appreciated. In general, Florencia is pleasant, and even if it isn't totally satisfying, most operagoers will find it rewarding.

The work is set around 1910 on the riverboat El Dorado, which is traveling up the Amazon from Leticia, Colombia, to Manaus, Brazil. Among the ship's passengers is Florencia Grimaldi, a world-famous opera singer who two decades earlier left her native South America to become a star in Europe; she has returned home in hope of being reunited with her long-lost lover, the naturalist Cristobal Ribeiro da Silva, and at the same time recapturing her past.

Other passengers include Paula and Alvaro, an aging couple attempting to mend their troubled marriage; Rosalba, who aspires to write a biography of Florencia; Arcadio, who is smitten by Rosalba; and the captain. Looming in their midst is the mysterious figure of Riolobo, who is able to assume several forms.

The opera's high point occurs at the end of the first act, when a violent storm lashes the small boat. The tension builds as the raging weather threatens the lives of everyone onboard. Riolobo implores the river gods to spare the world from destruction. Catan's score for this scene is stirring and underscores the situation's gravity. Highly effective use of lighting depicts the ship being pummeled by cherry-colored raindrops. The scene is truly stunning.

Otherwise, the trip down the Amazon is relatively uneventful, except when the travelers reach Manaus and learn that the boat cannot dock there because a cholera epidemic has broken out in the city. For the most part, the dramatic action focuses on Florencia's regret over abandoning her lover for an operatic career, the growing love between Rosalba and Arcadio and the troubled relationship between Paula and Alvaro. Of these three themes, the last is by far the most interesting. The pitched battles of Paula and Alvaro, often punctuated with humor, are among the opera's most entertaining sequences. And their final reconciliation is one of the work's most touching moments. After the storm, Paula believes that Alvaro has been killed. When she finds out he's still alive, the pair are reconciled. Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman (Paula) and baritone Hector Vasquez (Alvaro) turned in strong performances as the estranged couple, and their performance drew enthusiastic applause.

But the most enthusiastic ovation was reserved for soprano Sheri Greenawald for her performance in the title role of Florencia. She sang beautifully, and her portrayal of the forlorn opera singer looking for her long-lost love was deeply moving. In the first act, Greenawald offered a heartfelt rendition of a moving aria in which Florencia laments her decision to leave her lover behind while she pursued fame. In the opera's final aria, Florencia rejoices at her spiritual, if not physical, reunion with Cristobal. Greenawald's stirring interpretation of this highly emotional number brought the work to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

Also excellent was baritone Frank Hernandez as Riolobo, the spirit of the Amazon River; bass Gabor Andrasy as the captain; tenor Greg Fedderly as the captain's nephew, Arcadio; and soprano Yvonne Gonzales as the young journalist, Rosalba. In support of the singers, conductor Vjekoslav Sutej and members of the Houston Symphony offered a beautiful interpretation of Catan's score. Though the sets for this production are sparse, that spareness is offset by stunning use of lighting to depict particular events, the storm sequence being the most noteworthy example. Effective lighting is also used to convey the horror that strikes the ship's passengers when they learn that cholera has struck Manaus.

While not a perfect work, Florencia is a commendable attempt to create an opera that captures the spirit of South America. It's also praiseworthy that HGO should take a chance on going against the grain by producing an opera that unabashedly wants to be beautiful in an age when the trend is toward the decidedly unlovely.

Florencia en el Amazonas plays through November 9 at the Wortham Center, Brown Theater, 500 Texas. 227-

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Bruce Guynn