WNO’s sensational “Florencia in the Amazon” at the KenCen

WNO’s sensational “Florencia in the Amazon” at the KenCen

Opening scene from Washington National Opera's "Florencia in the Amazon." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2014 – “Sometimes a new opera is a trial. This one is not.”

That’s an actual audience comment this reviewer overheard during the intermission of “Florencia in the Amazon” (“Florencia en el Amazonas”), the nearly-new work the Washington National Opera chose to open its 2014-2015 season at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this past Saturday.

Regarding that audience member’s observation recalled to mind a years-ago comment from an old merchant mariner: “Truer words was never spoke.”

Grammar aside, when taken together, these two comments seem to package the audience reaction to WNO’s sensational new production of “Florencia,” a 1996 opera by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán, a long-time U.S. resident who died suddenly of a heart attack in Austin, Texas in 2011 when he was only 62.

"Florencia" composer Daniel Catán. (Wikipedia)
“Florencia” composer Daniel Catán. (Wikipedia)

At the time, he had been working on the Los Angeles Opera premiere of what turned out to be his final opera, “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). It featured former WNO general director Plácido Domingo in the role of Pablo Neruda. Such a literary connection was a hallmark of Catán’s compositional direction as he was as ardent about world literature as he was about composition.

But perhaps most unusually, in spite of studying composition under serialist Milton Babbitt and others, Catán followed his own musical muse, creating a style that, in “Florencia” at least, melds the impressionism of composers like Debussy and Ravel with the extended tonality of opera and film composer Erich Korngold while restraining the extravagant mix slightly with the lightest possible touch of Philip Glass-style minimalism.

The score of “Florencia” is as refreshing as it is astonishing, at least in terms of the general direction of most 20th century classical music. Academic composers willfully trashed much of Western musical tradition in favor of strictly serial or atonal compositions that sent audiences packing in droves.

Younger composers from the 1970s forward have tried to wrestle away from this direction, seeking to regain audiences that classical music and traditional opera had lost. But Catán broke the serialist gridlock in a decisive way, re-connecting, in “Florencia” and other operas, with the extended tonality developed by Zemlinsky, Korngold, Scriabin (perhaps) and even, arguably, the late work of Gustav Mahler—a direction abandoned by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as they struck out in a radically different direction, replacing melody and harmony with math.

Hence the kind of audience response we overheard Saturday. The music of “Florencia” is lush, expansive, passionate, reminiscent of the influences noted above yet expressed in a language that’s totally the composer’s own. It’s modern verismo without the dull patches, and often like Puccini at his most impressionistic but, however, without the memorable tunes.

If there’s a fault in this opera at all, it would involve the almost constant level of passion in the music and in the singing, a bit of an operatic answer to pop music’s insistence on “belting” nearly everything at increasing decibel levels to express emotion. But in “Florencia,” even this is a minor fault, since even the belting sounds awfully good.

The other unusual aspect of this opera is its highly literate, intelligent and moving Spanish libretto penned by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, clearly in close collaboration with the composer.

The creation of a new opera

“Florencia’s” story line is “inspired” by the magical realism arguably perfected by internationally famed Colombian novelist, the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez (1927-2014), who passed away only this April. The librettist’s often-soaring poetry and surprisingly deep intellectual and philosophical content distinguish this treatment from the dullness of many so contemporary libretti that neglect musical poetry for a misguided, literal “realism” that neither soars nor aspires.

This garden variety “realism” is replaced here by a Márquez-inspired “magical realism” that intersperses fantasy and elements of the spiritual with otherwise clearly realistic developments. The result is a type of story that seems grounded in an accepted reality but also incorporates fantastic elements while making them somehow seem real.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Fuentes-Berain happens to have been a student of the late novelist. Marquez actually worked with both she and the composer to develop the story and characters. The insightful and colorful poetry of this libretto unite with Catán’s sweeping score to create a near perfect union of story and song.

The libretto does not follow any novel specifically, but it’s relatively easy to see the influence of Márquez’ 1985 novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which charts the ambiguities of romantic love in both its idealized and corrupted forms while revealing that neither is always what it appears to be.

The plot of “Florencia”

Is the El Dorado a ship of romantic fools? (Credit: Scott Suchman)
Is the El Dorado a ship of romantic fools? (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Hence, the dual underlying plotlines of “Florencia,” which unfold aboard the El Dorado, an passenger vessel traveling the Amazon River system from Leticia in southernmost Colombia to the exotic Brazilian jungle city of Manaus.

In the opera, the budding affair of the young writer Rosalba (Andrea Carroll) and the El Dorado’s second in command Arcadio (Patrick O’Halloran) stands in stark contrast with the bitter, rapidly decaying marriage of fellow passengers Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (Michael Todd Simpson). It’s as if youthful innocence is meeting up for the first time with the hearts of darkness that love can easily become. But again, as things develop, neither relationship is always what it seems.

The development of these two relationships are contrasted with yet a third which constitutes the symbolic center of the opera and involves its mysterious primary character, Florencia Grimaldi (Christine Goerke), a world-famous opera diva. Raised in these very jungles, Florencia left them years ago, presumably forever, as she pursued her dream of becoming the superstar she now is.

But Florencia is now returning after many years, presumably for a performance at the Manaus Opera House (Teatro Amazonas), but secretly to search for her long lost first love Cristóbal, a butterfly collector reputedly lost years ago somewhere in the jungle. The flowering of this ideal but unrequited love is appropriately carried forward by means of the butterfly metaphor, which serves to unite the spiritual and aspirational elements of the opera.

In addition to its wonderful music and elegant libretto, another key reason behind the success of this WNO production is the fact that its director—WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello—was also present at this opera’s creation, having traveled to a then very-dangerous Colombia along with the composer and the librettist to visit with and collaborate with Márquez in the creation of the new work, whose successful premiere she eventually directed at the Houston Grand Opera.

“Florencia in the Amazon”: Opening night performance

WNO’s new production, a co-production, in fact, with the Los Angeles and San Francisco Opera companies, is remarkable in its simplicity. Designed by Robert Israel, the set itself is simply a small, not very special two-deck passenger boat, very much like one that might have traversed the Amazon around the turn of the last century, the time during which the opera’s story unfolds. The boat rotates a full 360 degrees on an unseen (but occasionally heard) turntable, which gets us to the second part of the scenic design.

The projected imagery, designed by S. Katy Tucker, is what makes this lonely boat come alive. As the vessel gets underway, the projected jungle imagery gives this journey a real sense of motion. The perspective changes as the journey proceeds, altering angle and direction to match every twist and turn in the river.

The motion rarely slows or stops except when the boat does, creating a very real, background sense that the journey is really progressing. Along with last year’s projected scenery in “Moby Dick,” it’s easy to see that projected rather than constructed scenery has come a long way over the last decade or so, when relatively static imagery seemed an obviously cheap way to cut down on the budget. It’s a different world now, courtesy of better artistry and, no doubt, faster computers.

Bringing this opera here and deploying it as the company’s season opener was a good choice. The opening night crowd is generally in an upbeat mood, and even a contemporary opera that perhaps many had never heard of was still likely to open to a full house. That this particular contemporary opera was virtually guaranteed to appeal to DC’s generally taste-conservative opera aficionados almost guaranteed that opening night would be a wonderful and enjoyable surprise, which it most certainly was.

Happily, the lushness and originality of “Florencia’s” score was enthusiastically embraced by both the orchestra and the performers who together mounted a virtually flawless production.

In addition to fine work from the chorus, who opened the opera and then sang at key moments off stage, the soloists were in top form, helping make this opera a musical as well as an artistic success.

Christine Goerke.
Christine Goerke’s Florencia is a lonely but commanding diva. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Top billing goes to renowned soprano Christine Goerke, whose sad, wise, compassionate Florencia evolves the symbolic and emotional heart of the opera. While Catán’s score doesn’t exactly provide his star with sing-in-the-shower, Puccini-style arias, he does give his heroine huge, elaborate, and achingly beautiful romantic essays in voice. Ms. Goerke embodies her character’s emotions with an almost Wagnerian sweep and power in an impressive, definitive performance.

Ms. Goerke is surrounded by a fine supporting cast of singers who get plenty of fine opportunities in this opera.

Central among the romantic pairings is the young writer, Rosalba. A would-be biographer of Florencia Grimaldi, whom she’s idolized from afar but never met, Rosalda’s draft bio seems to be more conjecture than fact, something she eventually aims to change when she discovers, in the second act, that the mysterious diva is actually on board the El Dorado.

As portrayed by soprano Andrea Carroll, Rosalda is in a sense the central intelligence of the opera. As a writer, she’s trying to uncover the real Grimaldi without much help, afflicted with perhaps a bit too much hero worship as well. At the same time, she finds to her surprise that she’s falling in love with the sincere but confused Arcadio and, almost like a modern feminist, cynically fights her emotions off convinced the personal consequences will be disastrous.

All this is conveyed by Ms. Carroll’s youthful, expressive voice, which alternates convincingly between romantic hope and bitter despair. Ms. Carroll’s Rosalda is a complex, winning, and appealingly modern character who’s easy to identify with and who keeps the story’s occasionally fantastic elements grounded in reality.

Rosaldo and Arcadio.
Ill-matched lovers Rosaldo (Andrea Carroll) and Arcadio (Patrick O’Halloran). (Credit: Scott Suchman)

As her romantic interest, tenor Patrick O’Halloran’s Arcadio is a bit more of a cipher. Although he’s the boat’s number two man—first mate or engineer perhaps?—Arcadio makes it clear to his uncle, the Captain (David Pittsinger) that he doesn’t want to sail the Amazon as a career. But he also has no idea what he really wants to do. His lack of direction compels him to pursue Rosalda, but aside from following his heart, he has no idea what he has to offer.

Mr. O’Halloran, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, has his frantic, confused character down, and has a great capability to express his feelings and emotions vocally. However, he sometimes lacks the vocal subtlety and output power the score sometimes demands of his character.

Couple number two consists of the older but not necessarily wiser married duo of Paula and Alvaro. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera excels as the bitter wife Paula. Perhaps not naturally shrewish, she becomes that way for whatever reasons a married person becomes that way. She’s stuck in a rut and can’t get out, trapped in what she regards as a useless marriage to a man she no longer loves but can’t leave.

Where Ms. Herrera’s performance becomes truly revealing is in her gradual reaction to the tragic disappearance of her husband, which leads her to greater dramatic and vocal introspection. Her extended Act II solo, during which she ruefully reflects on her own role in poisoning her marriage, is one of the most moving moments in an opera that has several.

As her husband and counterpart Alvaro, baritone Michael Todd Simpson is equally adept at portraying Paula’s confused and emotionally inept husband. The perfect (or shall we say imperfect) match for Ms. Herrera’s Paula, Mr. Simpson’s Alvaro inevitably chooses the wrong words at the wrong time, attempting to placate or soothe Paula’s hair-trigger responses, while only making them worse.

Mr. Simpson’s understanding of the dynamic is remarkable and effective, and his vocal conveyance of the same defines the experience brilliantly for the audience.

Baritone Norman Garrett is excellent in this opera’s most unusual role, that of Ríolobo who serves as the story’s narrator and as the visible spirit of the Amazon while part-timing it aboard the El Dorado as a deckhand, a porter and a general jack-of-all-trades. Mr. Garrett’s deep, patient and profound voice perfectly matches the mood and spirit of the music as he contributes insight, knowledge, and more than a bit of magic to his unusual role.

Finally, in the small but key part of the ship’s Captain, bass-baritone David Pittsinger contributes equal measures of stability and authority as he guides both his ship and his passengers into new territory and new insights on life.

A surprise added plus in this production is the addition of a small troupe of accomplished dancers, including Durell Comedy, Alison Mixon, Christopher Pennix, Matthew Steffens, and Ricardo Zayas. Attired as ancient Aztecs, the appear and disappear during this opera’s frequent orchestral interludes, impersonating the soul and spirit of the Amazon and the surrounding jungle.

Normally, this critic finds such dance interpolations unnecessary and distracting. But in this production, these talented dancers create a very real sense of the river’s ebb and flow as well as conjuring up the spirit of the jungle’s mythical past. All the while, they contribute to the quiet beauty and majesty of the performance.

The WNO orchestra performed wisely and well under the baton of Carolyn Kuan in her debut with this ensemble. We had our first opportunity to encounter Ms. Kuan’s conducting this past summer as she ably navigated the challenging Chinese-Western score of Huang Ruo’s new opera “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” for its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera.

Her efforts here seemed to be equally impressive as she conveyed Catán’s breathtaking score with a broad, dramatic sweep while carefully avoiding taking individual singers out of the action as can sometimes occur in a large orchestral accompaniment.

Aside from a somewhat puzzling trajectory involving Rosalda’s ill-fated biographical manuscript, we could find little if anything to complain about in this wonderful production.

It won’t be at the Kennedy Center for long. So if we’ve piqued your interest, we suggest checking WNO’s web pages or giving the box office a ring at your earliest convenience if you want to enjoy a truly emotional and surprisingly intellectual musical experience.

(To get a flavor of what we’re talking about, here’s a music-only video, complete with butterfly, of the Houston Grand Opera performing Act I Scene I of “Florencia in the Amazon.”)

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

WNO’s “Florencia in the Amazon” will be presented tonight, September 22 and on September 24, 26 all at 7:30 p.m.; and on September 28 at 2:00 p.m. (matinee) at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Tickets and information: Remaining seats are priced from $56-290. To purchase, visit the WNO pages at the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at either 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

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