Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its first-ever Spanish-language mainstage opera on Nov. 13th with Florencia en el Amazonas by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán and libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Inspired by the magical realism that suffuses Gabriel García Márquez’s literary oeuvre, the opera straddles the real and the surreal. As Andrea Puente Catán, the composer’s widow, explains, “For Latin Americans, it’s like those magical moments are integrated into the way we live.”
The opera tells the story of a renowned diva, Florencia Grimaldi, who sails down the Amazon River to give a concert in her hometown of Manaus, Brazil—her first concert in South America for 20 years—and to reconnect with her long-lost lover, Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who had disappeared into the rainforest. A massive storm forces the boat aground, causing Florencia and the other passengers to come to realizations about love and the meaning of life.
In celebration of the opera’s 25th anniversary, director Francesca Zambello, one of the original collaborators on the opera, created a new, visually stunning production for Lyric Opera of Chicago. The plot takes place exclusively aboard a large, revolving boat, surrounded by panels that evoke the jungle onto which colourful lighting and images are projected to indicate different times of day, weather, and moods, while water nymphs dance balletically below. The most awe-inspiring moment came at the very end when huge multicolored butterflies descended from the ceiling against a backdrop of mottled pink light during Florencia’s final aria.
Catán’s music provides as lush an aural world as the visual world that Zambello creates. Though a contemporary opera, the music is familiar, firmly rooted in the sound world of Puccini and tinged with notes of Ravel, Holst, and Debussy (the similarly surreal Pelléas et Mélisande especially comes to mind). However, the unique instrumental colours of the marimba and steel drum, paired with moments of Latin dance rhythms, give the score a distinct flavor.
The problem with this neo-Romantic style is that the score loses its impact as one arching lyrical phrase follows another. With so many musical peaks, especially in Florencia’s vocal lines, the music feels inconclusive and never entirely satisfying. This ambiguity appears to have been Catán’s aim, as Puentes Catán explains: “The Latin American literary tradition includes several books that end like this—with a question mark.” Catán’s lush sound world lulls us into a dreamlike state, leaving the audience waiting for a definitive moment of conflict and resolution that never truly occurs, and the dramatic moments of the storm and the cholera outbreak come abruptly without adequate preparation.
Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza made his Lyric debut conducting Catán’s richly orchestrated score. De Souza brought out the various colours of the orchestra effectively, particularly in the balletic interludes. However, there were times when the orchestra covered the singers. But it was an uphill battle given the heavy orchestration and the frequent doubling of the vocal lines with horns or unison strings.
Florencia has become somewhat of a calling card for Puerto-Rican-born soprano Ana María Martínez, having sung the role of Rosalba in 2001 at Houston Grand Opera and, more recently, Florencia at Houston and Florida Grand Operas. Martínez brought to the role a rich middle voice tinged with pathos, coupled with stunning floated high notes that featured in each of her arias. However, at times, the numerous dramatic phrases seemed to be a bit taxing for her, which was not aided by the heavy orchestration.
The vocal standout of the evening was the young Nicaraguan-American soprano Gabriella Reyes as Rosalba, a journalist who is writing a book about Florencia Grimaldi, not realizing her glamorous fellow passenger is, in fact, the diva herself. Reyes was the only one in the cast who consistently carried over the orchestra with ease, which she did with a gleaming, rich tone and impressive top. She made an excellent vocal counterpart to Martínez, as Florencia sees glimmers of her younger self in Rosalba.
A true ensemble piece, the opera gave each character moments to shine. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel and baritone Levi Hernandez brought humor and heart to the opera as the old, embittered married couple, Paula and Alvaro. Tenor Mario Rojas sang the role of Arcadio, Rosalba’s love interest, with conviction and a strong top. Baritone Ethan Vincent gave an impressive performance as Riolobo, particularly when he descended from the ceiling in the guise of a river spirit with giant wings during the storm scene. In the role of the Captain, bass Raymond Aceto was a steadying force both vocally and dramatically.
Florencia en el Amazonas runs through November 28. More details and tickets here.