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Second Opinion: Florencia in the Amazon

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Photo (detail) courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman.

Monday evening, September 22, 2014, I heard the second performance of Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia in the Amazon, the season-opening opera of the Washington National Opera.

Exactly the kind of opera that should fill the house with people who love traditional opera

Over several years, I have been listening to the music from this Spanish-language opera on the Albany Troy recording of the Houston Grand Opera production without paying too much attention to the libretto. I fell in love with the music, which is sumptuous, radiant, Impressionistic, stirring and fully Puccini-esque. I had to laugh when I read that soprano Christine Goerke, who so ably sings the role of Florencia, said, “I describe the music as ‘Puccini had a baby, and Debussy was the nanny.’” That’s exactly it, with slight dash of Stravinsky added from his ballet music. If you find that description attractive, hie thee to the Kennedy Center for one of the remaining performances (till September 28). In fact, I had to scratch my head over the empty seats Monday night. Or not scratch—after all this opera is relatively new (1996), Catán’s name relatively unknown, and prospective audience members ever so gun-shy. But this is exactly the kind of music and opera that should fill the house with people who love traditional opera.

What opera is really about is love, death, passion, and happiness

available at Amazon
D.Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas,
P.Summers/ Houston Grand Opera / P.Schumann, M.Doss et al.

With masterful understatement, Catán (1949-2011) said, “In my work… perhaps, the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition… but rather the profound assimilation of it”. I’ll say! How else could he have gotten the nerve to write such impossibly beautiful, ecstatic music? Catán believed that “what opera is really about, is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one—that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.”

So much for the music; now for the libretto. Since the music is so much like Puccini, it is no surprise that the subject is love—both fulfilled and frustrated in equal measure. The plot turns around the return of Florencia, a world-famous diva, to her hometown of Manaus up the Amazon, where she is to reopen the opera house. After her absence of 20 years, she is in search of her long-lost lover, Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter, whom she left for the sake of her singing career. She is full of longing for him and regret at the emptiness of her fame. She appears incognito among the other passengers on the riverboat, the El Dorado. Two couples show the various and varying sides of love—an older married couple for whom the flame has died out, and a younger couple experiencing the thrills of first love. Both in some way think that experiencing Florencia’s performance in Manaus will resolve their problems.

The journey is the destination

Without going into further plot details, I can say that Catán pulls out all the musical stops fairly early on, but is able to sustain a marvelous sense of expectancy throughout act one, which ends in a dramatic storm scene. The vocal quintet (or was it a sextet?) near the end of the act is one of the glorious highlights.

At the beginning of the second act, the boat is stranded. One might say when the boat stops, so does the opera in the sense of action. The first several scenes are reflections on love, fear, and longing. The scenes are static, the action interior, but the music gorgeous. The boat begins to move again, and the couples find resolution, but the El Dorado cannot dock because cholera has broken out in Manaus. Since the destination is never reached, does not the opera end in frustration? One might think so, but the dramatic lesson is that the journey itself was the destination.

The opera ends in a remarkable aria in which Florencia sings to Cristóbal, whom she now knows she will never see again and who is probably no longer living. She had earlier said, “I want to sing to him and find the light again, that light freed me, it gave me wings.” As she sings, giant wings descend and she is transformed into a butterfly—out of her chrysalis of selfishness at last.

Love is beauty

The transformation of Florencia into a butterfly signified to me her willingness to be caught—in other words, submission to the butterfly catcher, who now appears to be nowhere and everywhere in the pantheistic world view that Catán and librettist Marcela Funetes-Berain portray. This, then, is her beginning, not her end. But who is the butterfly catcher? He is, it seems, love—not a transcendent love, but an imminent pantheistic love that infuses and suffuses everything and at least carries over the great divide of death. Catán wrote, “She breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other.” I think it might be more accurate to say that the teaching of the opera is: love is beauty. Or rather it becomes beautiful precisely at the point of its surrender—just at Florencia becomes a butterfly at hers.

On Monday evening, the beauty was certainly conveyed by the singing and the orchestral performance, conducted by Carolyn Kuan in her Washington National Opera premiere, which captured the soaring lyricism, as well as all the twittering and rippling sounds of nature. Soprano Andrea Carroll was a standout in her portrayal of Rosalba. The act two duet with her and the radiant Christine Goerke was outstanding—by itself worth the price of admission. However, there really wasn’t a weak link in the cast—a point proven by all the excellent ensemble singing.

I wondered whether the production could be as good as the music, as one’s imagination runs wild when listening unassisted by visuals. It almost was. It’s hard to use a single set and avoid tedium. However, the river boat was roughly realistic and able to turn. Projections and lighting were quite effective, though not at the genius level seen in the production of Moby Dick last season. There was no gratuitous movement. The stage direction was spot on.

There is a lot to like—perhaps, to love—in this production of Florencia in the Amazon. Do not let it pass you by. 

This production continues through September 28, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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