Catán’s glorious music makes up for fitful vocal magic in Lyric Opera’s “Florencia”

Sun Nov 14, 2021 at 3:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ana María Martínez stars in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en al Amazonas at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

After many stops at ports of call around the world over the past 25 years, Florencia en el Amazonas finally docked at the Civic Opera House Saturday night for its belated Chicago premiere.

Premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, Daniel Catán’s opera received both critical acclaim and audience popularity at its debut—a rarity for any contemporary opera. That laudatory reception has been repeated at its many revivals since at major and regional houses over the past two-and-a-half decades.

The action takes place in early 20th-century Brazil. A motley group of people are aboard the steamship El Dorado, all taking a trip up the Amazon to Manaus to hear the celebrated opera singer Florencia Grimaldi. The diva herself is traveling incognito on the ship and hoping to encounter her long-lost lover, the butterfly hunter Cristobal. Also aboard is Rosalba, a young journalist who is writing a biography of Florencia, and Paula and Alvaro, a quarrelsome middle-aged couple trying to rekindle their relationship. There is also the Captain, his day-dreamy nephew Arcadio, and Riolobo a mystical river spirit who serves as a narrator and ship factotum.  

As the melancholy Florencia pines for her lost lover, romance blossoms between Rosalba and Arcadio while the older couple continues to argue. A storm at sea threatens disaster but the ship and its travelers are saved by Riolobo who appears transformed as a butterfly. Ultimately, Manaus is reached only to learn that it is closed due to a cholera epidemic. Even without the famous singer’s concert, both couples are reconciled and Florencia achieves solace in her acceptance of a mystical reunion with the spirit of Cristobal.

The magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez is the clear inspiration for Florencia. Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s capable libretto is in that storied Latin tradition but doesn’t quite pull off the balance of the natural and fantastical; Riolobo’s epidopteran transfiguration, here flying in from the wings on strings, seems as likely to elicit laughter as awe.

The main element Florencia has going for it is Daniel Catán’s magnificent score—rich, rhapsodic and constantly flowing and undulating like the Amazon itself. As shown in his La hija de Rappaccini—presented by Chicago Opera Theater in a streamed performance last April—the Mexican composer writes gloriously for voices in an unapologetically tonal, lushly Romantic idiom, spiced by Latin coloring and instrumental timbres. What a grievous loss for contemporary opera when the composer died a decade ago, leaving his final opera Meet John Doe, based on the Frank Capra movie, uncompleted.

Lyric Opera’s shaky opening performance Saturday night was one of those occasions when it was unclear if the problems were a one-off or would continue throughout the rest of the run. Considering the quality of the opera and especially, Catán’s music, this time the company gets the benefit of the doubt that issues will be resolved and things will improve. Hopefully.

The main problem opening night was that Ana María Martínez delivered a largely uninspired performance as Florencia. While she rose to the otherworldly mystery of the final scene, in her three big arias the soprano’s singing was cautious, slender of tone in the high reaches and sparing with top notes. Martínez—who created the role of Rosalba at the HGO premiere—has a history of laying back on first nights so let’s hope she find more fire and greater energy in her portrayal soon. A Florencia without a charismatic singer of vocal brilliance in the title role leaves a gaping void at the center of the opera, as was the case Saturday night.

Mario Rojas and Gabrielle Reyes are Arcadio and Rosalba in Florencia en al Amazonas. Photo: Cory Weaver

Fortunately, the rest of the cast was mostly excellent. As the writer Rosalba, Gabrielle Reyes—making her Lyric debut—provided the finest vocalism of the evening, riding Catán’s long lines securely and displaying a creamy soprano instrument. Mario Rojas took a while to warm up as Arcadio but his clear, vibrant tenor blended gratefully with Reyes’ soprano, and the youthful singers soared in their love duets.

As half of the Brazilian Bickersons, Levi Hernandez (who also appeared in COT’s Rappaccini). was a likable presence as the long-suffering husband, Alvaro. Mezzo Deborah Nansteel failed to make the nagging Paula less insufferable, her wobbly Act 2 aria finding little redeeming humanity.

As the narrator-trickster-river spirit Riolobo, baritone Ethan Vincent made a worthy company bow, managing to not look too ridiculous flying in on wires. Raymond Aceto proved ideal casting as the Captain, bringing a stalwart bass and grounded yet humane authority to the fantastical proceedings.

Peter J. Davison’s original nautical unit set remains impressive, the El Dorado boat revolving 360 degrees to offer an array of vantage points for the action. Mark McCullough’s iridescent lighting artfully enhanced the scenes as well.

Francesca Zambello helmed the original Florencia production, yet her stage direction in this revival proved the usual mixed bag. At times it was resourceful and inspired—as with having the singers placed just right so they were at the front of the stage for their lines as the ship rapidly spun out of control in the violent tempest.

Other times, her direction was just baffling. The end of Act 1 was so confusingly staged opening night that no one would have known that one of the characters was washed overboard without reading the program (as several patrons commented). That scene’s coda was also jarringly underrehearsed with the lighting blackout, music and stage action entirely out of synch.

Dancers have been a part of Florencia productions since the Houston premiere. But in this staging, Zambello inserts dancers at every opportunity, as if to ensure that there is always movement on stage during the “slow parts.” 

Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography was superb as was the dancing by the seven-member ensemble. But their omnipresent undulating and writhing too often distracted from the principals’ actions and undermined key plot points—as when Rosalba loses her notebook or Alvaro goes overboard. God forbid Zambello might allow us to simply enjoy Catán’s beautiful orchestral interludes without a troupe of dancers on stage to liven things up.

Conductor Jordan de Souza’s Lyric debut was mixed at best. For much of the first act, Catán’s roiling, kaleidoscopic score sounded muted and gray, with lyric climaxes weak and the storm scene underpowered. For long stretches the music seemed to chug along dutifully with little variety or detailing of dynamics and coloring. Things improved somewhat after intermission but overall the Canadian conductor presented a decidedly pallid account of this luxuriant score. 

The company would have done better to engage a more experienced hand for this important assignment—like Patrick Summers, since the HGO music director led the Florencia world premiere and its revivals and clearly knows this score inside and out.

Florencia en al Amazonas runs through November 28.

Photo: Lyric Opera of Chicago

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One Response to “Catán’s glorious music makes up for fitful vocal magic in Lyric Opera’s “Florencia””

  1. Posted Nov 16, 2021 at 3:25 pm by John

    I heard Martinez sing this role in its Houston debut, and she was very much in her prime. Very beautiful.

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