Cher Public

Rolling on the river

Florencia en el Amazonas at The New York City OperaIn Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad, Huck Finn famously states: “there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Huck, a character who knows a thing or two about traveling down rivers, could be summing up the experience of watching the New York premiere of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas at NYCO, an opera that charts the emotional trajectory of seven characters aboard a ship called the El Dorado. 

But while its creators have claimed the piece was inspired by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez (the libretto was written by his student, Marcella Fuentes-Berain), I would argue that the piece owes more to Ovid’s Metamorphoses than anything else. I write this because Florencia en el Amazonas is, above all, an opera about movement, change, and transformation: to travel from point A to point B, and how such a journey alters the contours of one’s identity.

While this evolution is not always painless, it is unavoidable. And as much as the characters both long for, and eschew, change within the opera, they have no choice but to confront these notions head on, whether they want to or not. As the ship’s captain tells his nephew, Arcadio: “Se avanza, siempre se avanza.” Indeed, things always move forward.

At its most basic level, what is perpetually moving forward in Florencia is the El Dorado, which sails down the Amazon River from Leticia to Manaus so that its passengers may hear the opera diva, Florencia Grimaldi, perform. However, what five of these characters do not realize is that the famed singer is, in fact, among them in disguise (of course…), a fellow traveler. While the others are heading to Manaus in search of Florencia, Florencia is also in search of an aspect of herself—she wishes to reconnect with a man she loved in the past, a butterfly hunter named Cristóbal Ribeiro da Silva, whom she left behind in Manaus to pursue her career.

But Florencia is not the only character hoping to make sense of the transforming nature of time and travel. Other figures in the opera also must contend with change. A young couple, Rosalba and Arcadio, slowly acknowledge their growing attraction for one another, while also coming to terms with love’s inherent pain. In contrast, a middle-aged couple, Paula and Alvaro, reckon with their own cooling passions. Meanwhile, the captain of the El Dorado and his helper, Riolobo, must navigate the Amazon’s natural and spiritual dynamics.

The manner in which these characters negotiate change is given both physical and temporal dimensions. And the river, always in a state of flux, symbolizes this progress. These mythical and physical processes of change explicitly call to mind the dynamics of Ovid. In fact, at the end of the opera, unable to enter Manaus because of a Cholera epidemic, Florencia processes her grief by transforming into a butterfly—the object of her former beloved’s affection.

Catán’s roving score is suitable for an opera about change. While deploying melodic strains reminiscent of Puccini, the composer also evokes the rushing water within the orchestration. Moreover, the opera’s final scene seems a nod to Strauss—alluding to the transformation of Daphne, as well as the final monologue from Capriccio. The result is a sweetly palatable (if a tad derivative) score, extremely accessible, and suitable to the demands of the opera’s narrative.

That being said, it is easy to see how some might find Catán’s opera a bit cloying. Not long ago, critic Philip Kennicott wrote, “…the closest narrative comparison [to Florencia en el Amazonas] is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.” And Kennicott is not wrong. The opera bears all the hallmarks of those TV shows: accessible, emotional, and perhaps a bit sappy. But it’s hard not to be seduced by sugar if one has a sweet tooth. And to certain operagoers, Kennicott’s comparison might seem like nothing more than a cynical bah humbug.

NYCO’s production, directed by John Hoomes, is a relatively successful embodiment of this sweetness: well lit, well costumed, and, generally, well sung. An original production of Nashville Opera, the direction makes significant use of projections, moving images of what appear to be the actual Amazon River. This device, constantly in motion, invests the piece with an ongoing kinetic energy.

Toward the end, however, as the opera’s subject matter becomes more mystical and supernatural, these projections become a bit ham-fisted. This is especially true of Florencia’s transformation scene—what begins as a beautifully symbiotic fusion of flesh and technology, suddenly becomes cheap and eerie, evoking the famous poster for Silence of the Lambs.

What is more distracting, though, is the way in which dancers are used to enact the organic movement of the river. Dressed like Woody Allen’s sperm in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), they writhe on the stage throughout the performance. And while I understand the desire to highlight the river’s constant, organic movement, the unfortunate costumes evoke oversized maggots instead.

Other performers fair better. As Florencia, Elizabeth Caballero does an admirable job of commanding the stage. Her voice, suffering a few technical hiccups early in the evening, is capable of deep pathos and emotional heft.

The rest of the cast supports the diva reliably. Won Whi Choi as Arcadio and Sarah Beckham-Turner as Rosalba display strong vocal presence and clear, direct character development. While their growing awareness of a mutual attraction is awkwardly staged, their passion for one another remains convincing. Their foils, Lisa Chavez and Luis Ledesma as Paula and Alvaro, produce even singing and garner sympathy, despite their thankless roles within the opera’s plot.

However, as the ship’s captain, Kevin Thompson struggles with intonation, and he is generally indistinguishable. As his helper, the magical Riolobo, Philip Cokorinos lacks the necessary charisma the role demands. This is especially true of a key moment in which he transforms into some kind of blue moth. While the moment is meant to spark wonder and awe, it instead suggests a superhero gone to seed.

The orchestra, briskly led by Maestro Dean Williamson is often out of tune—however, the musicians cannot dampen the shimmer and ardor of Catán’s score, which always pulses forward, in sync with the river’s motions. There is something incredibly compelling about this dynamic. And as the ship reaches its destination to discover the cholera epidemic—coffins floating on the water’s surface—one can see quite clearly the destination of all moving things, and hence the opera’s inevitable end: death, the grief it provokes, and its ultimate capacity for transformation.

Photo: Sarah Shatz

    • antikitschychick

      nice to see such an enthusiastic review by JJ and thanks to Patrick as well for the detailed analysis of the story and it’s origins. Congrats to Elizabeth Caballero and the rest of the performers. I watched a clip of the rehearsal and very much liked what I heard, and saw, well except for the unintelligible Spanish of Kevin Thompson lol. I really wish I could see this but alas I had made plans for this weekend :-(. Is it possible that more performances will be added?

  • aulus agerius

    Very interesting comments about the opera -- none of which I got when I saw it at Moore School of Music, University of Houston. I certainly don’t blame it on them…..it was a very good production. Regarding the dancers depicting the river: it is possible to do this well. The Sean Curran dancers in Lafayette Opera’s Les Festes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour played the part of the River Nile very effectively, their marvelous costumes also displaying their talents admirably. All good.

  • Camille

    Well now I’m not sure of you two guys to believe but I may take a chance on it alove Boat aspect or no, as I’ve long been curious about this particular lyric work and have always heard good things about Elisabeth Caballero as well.

    Mr James, you are quite gifted and rsther poetic. Hope that does not offend you.

    • Camille

      LOVE Boat, that is. Sigh.

      See below:

    • luvtennis1

      Camille:

      It is a gorgeous piece -- think Korngold crossed with late Puccini and a touch of Schreker.

      Get the recording -- Patricia Schumann is a shrill Florencia but Ana-Maria Martinez is glorious in a very large role.

      I think you will enjoy the piece. I hope the NYCO production doesn’t mew the Met won’t be doing it soon. It would probably be gorgeous on that huge stage with that orchestra!

    • Camille

      Returned from a short voyage down the mighty Amazon on El Dorado where I heard this utterly astonishing line “What wine do you drink with Anacondas?”

      LUSH score, indeed! (More like the bastard child of Ottorino Respighi and Philip Glass with a side plate of Menotti.) As someone must have consumed at LEAST a liter or two to have come up with that line! AND--Caveat Emptor--Had anyone given me warning there would be a visitation from no less than TINKERBELLE at opera’s Disneyesque ending, I’d have saved my time and energy on this pretentious boring pointless exercise in Kitsch or at least I’d have worn my Pirates of the Caribbean tee shirt that evening.

      And perhaps most inexplicably of ALL to me was the sudden great LONGING welling up to return and review Written on Skin, as such was the wildly extraneous thought which popped into my mind during the Spermatozoa Ballet of The Amazonas. Was this thing in San Francisco last summer La Ciociara something along these lines, this pseudo-neo-kitscho-pucciniano-redux? Povero Puccini. To think of the hard work and efforts he put into his second act of Fanciulla,and then people writing this invertebrate stuff and calling it ‘neo-Puccini’. Not even ‘il nuovo Menotti’.

      Mebbe I’ll give it a listen to hear my dear Sra Martínez sing a bit on the recording luvtennis suggests, and mebbe the recording is better — BUT TonyTom got it straight, for once, with “Maudlin”. I find both PCJ and JJ to be overly genteel on this one.

      Singers all worked hard. Liked the young tenor guy the best. Others varied and Ms Caballero is to be commended for the repeated stretch of her upper fifth and her transmogrification abilities.

      Basta, Roberti. Ripigliamo.

      • Camille

        Oh NO! I just recalled-- It was wine with IGUANAS and not ANACONDAS!

        There was as well something about anacondas, too, but now have forgotten the rest of the anaconda phrase--one which I’ll leave for Nicki Minaj, I guess.

        • Batty Masetto

          Genevieve recommends Chinese snake wine with anaconda.

          As the once-rampant iguana population of South Florida is now dwindling thanks to the hunting skills and culinary enterprise of some segments of the local Latino population, she suggests a mojito to accompany.

          • Camille

            Send my regards to Genevieve! Que vive Genevieve!!!

            I’ll take the mojito--Cuban style--and dump ALL anacondas on either Nicki Minaj or m. croche—whomever accepts the postal charges. Iguanas can go to Liz and Dick: address Puerto Vallarta.

            Sorry about the run on iguanas in So Fla, as I know Genevieve’s re-startup plans included them. Around here there’s a great love of Ecuadorian guinea pig--CUY--they have to send to Ecuador to get them as Mamacita made them as the locals say “No es el Mismo” about the ones grown here. (Chacun à son goo category)

      • luvtennis1

        Too bad you didn’t care for the piece! It is kitschy. GGM can be pretty kitschy too when you think about it. I can’t speak to Catan’s musical gifts but frankly I wish we had more composers form Latin America writing opera. A nice change from the constant Italian French German hegemony.

        Interestingly I just finished listening to Akhnaten. Hated the cultural imperialism that invariably raises its head when Euro-American tries to elucidate foreign cultures -- especially those so far removed from the present day. But still the piece makes an impression. I am not sure whether the message is people haven’t changed in 4000 years -- they still suck -- or that there is no fool like a religious one -- pretty timely message if so.

        What disturbs me about the piece -- is the completely static and inflexible writing for the voice. Now Akhnaten is no different from many modern operas in this regard, but I must ask

        “Why do modern composers struggle so much to write for the voice -- everything sounds either overheated or monotone -- which is probably OK for Akhnaten -- but is just deadly in more conventionally dramatic works. Was Barber the last composer who could write artfully for the voice.

        If you know of contrary examples please share! FYI -- the ease with which he writes for the voice is a primary reason for my fondness for the Catan.

        • Camille

          There’s that fellow Jimmy López, who wrote Bel Canto for Chicago Lyric and of which I’ve not heard a note. Then there is also Ginastera, of whom I only have a slight and glancing familiarity with his Beatrix Cenci opera. I entirely missed out on him when he was happening and it’s always made me feel bad.

          So far as Catán’s ease of writing for the voice--ha! He writes what’s easy for HIM for the voice--every blooming phrase heading upward in the same arc to cap itself with the requisite Bb, B, or C. It became so anticlimactic as one knew the formula after a span of ten minutes. Not original melos and no gradation from recitativo to canto spianato, it’s all the same. The bickering couple sang in exact same musical and vocal style as the lovebirds. Promising starts to phrases that never fully developed into a big musical arc of a phrase, something like Menotti, but not even.

          No me gusta, papí!!!

          Gimme good old Moreno Torroba any old day.

          It is wonderful, though, to hear music sung in Spanish as it is such a graceful and fluent language for song and that was the one thing which pleased me. I deplore the lack of repetitions of the few Spanish language operas or serious zarzuelas (not the comic genre for which one really has to be a Spanish speaker to get the jokes) which are out there, but the public just has no taste for nor knowledge of them. There used to be a light opera/zarzuela group in Miami, the GRATELI company, which successfully staged seasons of those beloved zarzuelas but they are long since gone and would not know who replaced them, if anyone. I wish Ana María Martínez wiuld be able to sing more of the repertoire but she has got to go for the big gigs so that will not likely happen. She is a superb singer of zarzuela and would he a white hope if she had more opportunity to do so. Que lástima!

          Don’t know Glass excepting a couple works and not that one you mention and what’s more--don’t care. His best opera is Koyaanisqatsi, AFAIC. E basta!

          Ciao 4 now! I will give the recording from Houston another listen sometime, just to hear la querida Ana María.

  • figaroindy

    Saw a production of this opera in Cincinnati several years back -- and it just left me cold. I was underwhelmed. It had a very “realistic-looking” set, which fluttered like cardboard when actually touched by actors….and it wasn’t staged in an interesting fashion at all. But, in the end, I just didn’t care about the characters and didn’t find the music engaging, either. I would agree it owes a lot to Puccini…lots of parallelism in the orchestration and vocal lines. Glad to hear it was enjoyable for others…maybe it was just the production.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Camille,

    Mr. James won’t be offended at all. You made him a compliment he well deserves. BTW, has anyone heard of Gianluca Terranova? I saw today, on medici.tv, a live performance of LaBoheme from the Royal Opera de Wallonie-Liege. He sang Rodolfo, and he blew me a way. Phenomenal lyrico/spinto with a towering clarion to boot. Looking him up, I found out he has sung all over Europe and Australia. Is Mr. Gelb aware of this tenor?
    Encore of the opera is free for one month on medici.tv, if any of the Parterrians is interested.

    • antikitschychick

      Constantine A. Papas, was looking for your post about that tenor, Gianluca Terranova and finally found it lol. I started watching the Boheme broadcast and was blown away too. Great voice! I checked out his website and apparently he was in a movie about Caruso? And he’s sung with Il Volo, has an album of arias coming out soon, and yes there are several clips of him performing in Australia and elsewhere. Kudos for the heads up. New discoveries are always fun.

  • I saw this production in Nashville and i thought is was quite effective. i am glad NYCO is presenting this opera.

    Anyone interested, I advise you to read this interview with Caballero.

    http://www.nbcnewyork.com/on-air/as-seen-on/Visiones_-Florencia-en-el-Amazonas_New-York-383505961.html

    Those wondering where have you heard her name, check your Carmen DVDs from the met. She is Frasquita on that DVD.

  • Countervail

    I attended the opening Wednesday. Can I say how much this made me think of everything NYCO was originally intended to promote and made me so happy?

    The production was intimate. One was able to get lost in the evening rather than say deal with the scene of the Met or the “it’s a happening” vibe of other hip productions around the city.

    The singing was wonderful with young rising talent. You heard singers doing work when they should be singing it, not contracting for 5/6/7 years in the future when the bloom might be off a particular role. The size of Rose Hall is so perfect for these chamber opera type works. These were committed singer/actors well supported by the venue.

    The staging was minimal. It’s lovely to see theatrically overwhelming sets, lighting, and effects but it neuters the imagination and cages the mind to only what you see on stage. This production, albeit with a couple cheezy moments, allowed the viewer to create their own particular setting.

    It was kooky! Philip Cokorinos in a giant bug suit? Two hours of writhing dancers as the Amazon river? Psychedelic projections of Florencia changing into a butterfly? Yes please!

    Reviewers will quibble about different elements. It is a fairly ridiculous story. It’s not a bourgeois, high drama night at the Met. It’s not a cast of celebrity superstars. It’s not a classic favorite work. But I’ve not had a more theatrically compelling evening like this in some time. The Catan music is LUSH (and to my ear much more like Debussy than either Puccini or Strauss :-\ ), the execution by Maestro Williamson and the orchestra was spot on.

    Do yourself a favor and grab a ticket for this weekend if you can.