Houston Grand Opera Presents the Magical Realism of Florencia en el Amazonas

Florencia en el Amazonas promises to be a mystical journey.
Florencia en el Amazonas promises to be a mystical journey. Photo by Craig T. Mathew

It's the stuff of countless books and magazine fiction. A young couple in love, but she has a gift of incredible talent and needs to leave to develop it. And he must stay because he is a butterfly hunter and where better to do that than the Amazon.  She becomes a legend, a great opera singer. Now, after 20 years Florencia Grimaldi is returning to South America, ready to give a concert. And find her lost love who has disappeared into the jungle.

Soprano Ana María Martínez, is back in Houston where she has had so many successes to sing the title role in Florencia en el Amazonas an opera by Daniel Catán and based on the works of magical realism master Gabriel Garcia Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). This Houston Grand Opera production which had its world premiere here several years ago,  has been updated by Francesca Zambello and HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers will conduct.

"Daniel Catán was a dear friend of mine," she says. He had heard her sing other roles and wanted her to sing Florencia. "He would call me about every two years out of the blue and say 'So, are you going to sing it now? Are you ready now?' And I would always say 'Not yet.' And why I would say not yet is it's very difficult technically speaking." But it is a very difficult part to sing with its movement from the lower register to the high ranges, she says, so she kept putting him off until she thought she was ready. "It requires everything that I've technically learned to date," she says so she doesn't have to think about it and can just surrender herself to the beautiful music, evoking the Amazon.

And finally she did think she was ready so when Summers asked her if she was interested, she said yes. During rehearsal when they were reviewing notes with Zambello, the original director, Zambello said she and  Catán actually met Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the author said he did not like the idea of his books being made into a movie. Martínez says she agrees with Zambello that "Opera is the ideal art form to convey magical realism."

The opera has many nuances, many developments but at its core, she says "It always returns to is the idea of love in many different forms. And this love is romantic love. Daniel Catán was a romantic, had a very romantic soul and apparently so did Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And they idealize it. They love the idea of love."

As Florencia travels incognito on a steamboat, hers is not the only story of a search for love. A middle-aged couple Paula and Alvaro are hoping a trip to her the famous opera singer will somehow mend their troubled marriage and end their bickering. Her voice, it's said, has magical powers. "They are searching for something they think they've lost," Martinez says.

A young journalist Rosalba, who is in fact trying to write a biography about Florencia but doesn't realize with whom she is traveling, becomes involved with the boat captain's nephew.The question for them is whether they have the courage to go after love for the first time, Martínez says.  Misunderstandings are everywhere.

"She walked away from love to pursue her career which was her other love, her voice,"  Martínez says of her character. Set in 1910, the costumes are beautiful, Martínez says, as is the music filled with lush, harmonic tones. 

Asked who this opera will appeal to, Martínez says "There are certain characters we can identify with so therefore it's going to appeal to a very wide range of people. I think everyone will identify with at least one character if not all because in a way all of the characters are part of each other."

"I'm not naive. I've been through my share of heartache. . But this piece reminds us of the transformative power of love. it is magical. It can transcend anything. And anything is possible."

Performances are scheduled for January 18 through February 3 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. on Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in Spanish with projected English translation. For information, call 713-2286737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$245.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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