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Love in the Time of Cholera

Christine Goerke and cast, Florencia en el Amazonas, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

An opera company's choice of a season opener may make a statement, but it may not mean what one thinks it means. Washington National Opera, now firmly under the artistic aegis of Francesca Zambello, chose to open its season with Florencia en el Amazonas, premiered in 1996 by Mexican composer Daniel Catán (1949-2011). On one hand, the choice shows a commitment to contemporary opera, especially in a season that also includes Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, from 1956; on the other hand, both works could be described as half-concessions to a conservative audience, since neither composer's style goes much beyond what one finds in the work of Debussy. Whatever the significance of the choice, Florencia is an audience-pleasing work, one of the most successful new operas of the last thirty years, creating a sense of enormous promise on which Catán seemed unable to capitalize, producing only one other major work opera, Il Postino, before he died. [The composer's son asked that I correct the impression that his father was not working in those intervening years, when he produced many other works besides the one opera. -- Ed.] Last performed in the Washington area by Maryland Opera Studio in 2010, this Florencia received a decent production and a mostly fine cast that put it in the best possible light.

available at Amazon
D. Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas, P. Schumann, M. Doss, Houston Grand Opera, P. Summers
(Albany Records, 2002)
Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by major American opera houses, and the wandering, mysterious libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain owes its style and tone -- distantly, through a filter -- to the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez. The plot is self-referential in a way, because the title character is an opera singer, Florencia Grimaldi, taking a trip on a riverboat up the Amazon, to reopen the opera house in Manaus. She left Brazil and the love of her life, a butterfly hunter named Cristóbal, to follow her career, but memories are stirred in her and in the others who make the voyage with her. Goerke inhabited the role of Florencia with dramatic poise, although vocally it did not quite fit her like a glove: the voice filled the room with beauty, but there were moments that the tone went slightly acidic, something not quite right in the placement or support. Part of this may be due to the Strauss-like demands of the vocal writing, at which Goerke has excelled with the NSO and with Washington National Opera, but Debussy-wispy orchestration -- enough swirling woodwind arpeggios to stun a small cat -- that does not always support the singer.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, ‘Florencia in the Amazon’ with Goerke: An ephemeral dream in first WNO outing (Washington Post, September 22)

---, Christine Goerke: WNO’s ‘Florencia’ star talks about singing (Washington Post, September 12)

Philip Kennicott, Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO (, September 21)

Roland Flamini, D.C. opera raises curtain with work inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Washington Times, September 22)
Sadly, Norman Garrett was a disappointment in the other lead role, that of Riolobo: he may have cut quite a figure in his loincloth and wings, but vocally he was not up to the weight of the character, both shipmate and all-seeing river shaman. Andrea Carroll made a smart debut as Rosalba, the journalist who hopes to interview Florencia, matching Goerke step for step in their Act II duet but overwhelming her love interest, tenor Patrick O'Halloran, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist who was given too much to chew as Arcadio. David Pittsinger was a stalwart Captain, and mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and baritone Michael Todd Simpson bickered spitefully as the married couple whose love is reignited by Florencia's example. Francesca Zambello's production hews closely to the libretto, for once, the only addition being a group of five dancers -- part piranha, part Brazilian savage, part brightly plumed birds -- that regularly filled the space around Robert Israel's rather plain rotating river boat set. Carolyn Kuan, who also made her Santa Fe Opera debut this summer, did competent work at the podium, but balances and ensemble cohesion could have been better. The timing of the final tableau, involving an immense set of butterfly wings that descended too early, causing preemptive applause, should be better on subsequent evenings.

This production continues through September 28, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Melody Moore replaces Christine Goerke on September 24.

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