Daniel Catán's ultra-romantic Florencia en el Amazonas (1996, in its Houston Grand Opera world premiere) is not a great opera, but it is a good one.
There's wondrous beauty threaded throughout the orchestration; the swirling melodies recall another musical era – swathes from Puccini and Debussy, tinges from Korngold; and there's seduction in the sumptuous musical evocation of nature. You can hear the mighty Amazon in all its splendor, terror, and mystery. The music, highly stylized, propels you, as does the splendid production from director Francesca Zambello, with its perfectly realized setting from designer Robert Israel, transcendent 3-D video projections from S. Katy Tucker that languidly carry you through the journey, and a shimmering paint sampler of jungle color from lighting designer Mark McCullough. The opera is rich in look.
Well-conceived as it is in its physicality and musical pleasure (look for the panther creeping through the rushes and the toucan about to alight on the tree branch), the opera meanders and gets stuck on the shoals much like the steamship carrying its “ship of fools” to the opera house in Manaus, where the legendary diva Florencia Grimaldi (soprano Ana Maria Martinez) is scheduled to sing. The international star is returning to her native country after an absence of 20 years, and the flawed passengers on the boat have great expectations. The passage downriver will change them forever. Yet the melding of the libretto's deep-dish magic realism with Catán's high-flying romanticism sits uneasily.
Music that uses such lush tonality and so readily conjures Bohème, Tosca, and La Mer, while incredibly accomplished and full of passion, seems out of place in a story where stoker Riolobo (baritone Norman Garrett) flies in during the storm sequence as plumed river god, or where unhappily married Alvaro (baritone Thomas Glass) gets swept overboard only to magically reappear very much alive when the storm subsides; or when the piranhas, sprightly portrayed by dancers, return the notebook of Rosalba (soprano Alicia Gianni) which has fallen into the river. The magic realism embedded in Marcela Fuentes-Berain's leaden libretto just doesn't easily mesh with the unabashed old-fashioned music.
To be sure, Catán's music is a pleasure to listen to, an evocation of an earlier age when opera caressed the ear. It's easy listening and very satisfying, and works best in its nature tone painting, the love duets, and Florencia's three arias, where the characters' passions suit this soaring early 20th-century musical palette. However, the dialogue is burdened by poetic philosophizing and weighty declarations that are out of place for these mundane people. Catán's magical music cannot lift us off the ground, try as it may. It becomes background music when it should remain front and center.
The cast is exemplary. Martinez, a Houston favorite, is a sterling Florencia, catching all the swelling romance during her soulful journey. She's seeking her lost love who disappeared into the jungle when she left home to find fame. She hasn't been whole since, but as she sings so plaintively in her final aria, ¿Dónde estás, Cristobal? (Where are you, Cristobal?), which closes the opera, her soul through song finds him at last. Behind her, a large iridescent butterfly emerges out of the darkness. She is one. It's a stunning closer. At her curtain call, Martinez, our own beloved home-grown diva, was awarded a deserved standing ovation.
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Gianni seemed just as committed to Rosalba, the writer who lacks life experience but expects to find it through her biography of Grimaldi. Her anti-love duet with disillusioned Arcadio (tenor Joshua Guerrero, nicely played) was a high point, as both of them describe love as disease, plague, or torment. Bickering couple Paula and Alvaro, who have lost their spark, were roundly portrayed by mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera and above-mentioned Glass (he who gets tossed overboard). They, too, experience a change for the better by the magic of the mighty river. When not flying in as a bird god (a comic misstep in this finely wrought production), Garrett was the living embodiment of the river – sturdy, forceful, mysterious. He added depth. Making his HGO debut, bass-baritone David Pittsinger, as Captain of the El Dorado, made a lasting impression. His strong deep voice carried effortlessly through the Wortham, and we knew that we, along with the passengers, were in strong hands with him at the helm.
Since its premiere, the opera has caught the wind, no doubt due to Catan's evocative music that's a tonic and antidote to spiky post-modern opera. You can hear the audience breathe a sigh of relief. Maestro Patrick Summers certainly thinks so, as he elicited stirring sounds from his orchestra and built the work to a colorful climax. The storm scene was as powerful as anything in his recent Flying Dutchman.
Whether Florencia en el Amazonas will permanently enter the rep is up for debate and probably much too early to call. But once you make it through its clunky dramaturgy, the opera's pretty smooth sailing. Good it is. Great? Not yet.
Florencia en el Amazonas. Through February 3 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Wednesday; and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Houston Grand Opera. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Sung in Spanish with projected English translation. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$245.