How often does even the most avid Cincinnati opera fan get to see and hear a work that’s only 12 years old? Not often. It’s even less common to attend a contemporary work and discover that its music is lyrical and pleasing (as opposed to just interesting), that its drama is challenging and rewarding and that the production is visually spectacular.
Such, happily, is the case with Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas, taking stage at Music Hall in only it’s eighth presentation since Houston Grand Opera gave it its world premiere in 1996. Until now only audiences in Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, East Lansing and Heidelberg, Germany, have had the opportunity to discover the accessibility of Catan’s lush, shimmering, tonal score and a libretto by Marcella Fuentes-Berain’s that is all at once magical, philosophical and emotional without becoming saccharine or melodramatic.
This is the first time in its 88-year history that a Cincinnati Opera production is being sung in Spanish. There is little or no tradition for opera in either Spain or Latin America. One Web source lists only five opera venues in all of Spain and a scan of their production histories shows only familiar Italian, German and French titles and composers. The opera companies in Houston and Los Angeles were demonstrating awareness of the growing Hispanic populations in their cities when they commissioned Mexican composer Catan to create Florencia.
The curtain raises on a dock scene. Masses of people gather. The gleaming white, triple-deck El Dorado is making ready for a cruise down the Amazon to the town of Manuas — a journey that will be both dimensional and metaphoric. Riolobo (baritone Nmon Ford) emerges from the throng. He is both a man (deckhand, steward) and a mystical, shape-changing spirit of the great river. The Captain of El Dorado (bass Burak Bilgili) and his nephew Acardio (tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz) will pilot the cruise through the jungle. They welcome aboard a bickering couple, Paula (mezzo-soprano Emily Golden) and Alvaro (baritone Carlos Archuleta). Next comes a beautiful young journalist named Rosalba (soprano Shana Blake Hill) and, finally, a mysterious opera singer Florencia Grimaldi (soprano Alexandra Coku). Troubled and in disguise, Florencia is returning to her native Manuas for the first time in 20 years — to sing a triumphal concert and to search for her long lost love — a naturalist named Christobal who disappeared into the Amazonian jungle years before in pursuit of the world’s rarest butterfly, the Emerald Muse.
Of the seven principle singers, only Bilgili has sung here before. All deliver performances that should make a Cincinnati audience welcome any return engagements — particularly Ford, Hill and Chacon-Cruz. The five passengers aboard the El Dorado will be guided through individual epiphanies as they ride the river. Young Rosalbo and Arcadio will discover affection for each other, then reject it as an impediment to the pursuit of their separate dreams — she to interview the great singer and write an incisive biography, he to become a pilot and fly above the river. Of course, they’ll discover that loving each other will strengthen them for their journeys and enrich their ultimate rewards. The older couple will re-discover a devotion to each other that they have allowed to fray and grow tiresome. Alvaro is swept overboard in a storm. Paula descends into despairing sorrow, but Riolobo and the river sprites return Alvaro to life and to joy.
In three powerful, deeply introspective arias Florencia examines the gains and losses she has garnered in her pursuit of fame and her rejection of personal relationships. Her epiphany is an emergence from her cocoon of self-interest and her transformation into a gigantic Emerald Muse that can fly off into the jungle in pursuit of her Christobal.
Catan and Fuentes-Berain describe their work as an homage to novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When the composer approached the novelist about creating a work in the magic-realism style of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, he (Marquez) suggested that Fuentes-Berain, who had worked with him on film scripts, should write the libretto. She did, drawing inspiration but not specific characters or plot details from Marquez’s work.
The resulting words sit gracefully on Catan’s long, melodic lines. Even more than in other operas these characters examine themselves and invite listeners inside the exploration of their emotions. Which is fine, given the fully rounded characters they are.
Working with the concept and some set pieces acquired from Houston Grand Opera, director Andrew Morton and designer Robert Israel have put up a dazzling, colorful production that is as magical as the script and score. Some of the small scene detailing is fidgety but the grand effects are grand indeed. The huge boat turns and moves about the stage, changing scenes and moods. Under Paul Pyant’s sensitive lighting it can seem as bleak as an Edward Hopper street scene or as beachy and colorful as a Richard Diebenkorn abstract.
Fog rolls in. Pink rain falls. Catherine Zuber’s circa 1910 costumes are perfect and emotive. A storm drives the boat onto a sand bar at the end of Act One. At one point Riolobo flies in from above the stage, singing as he flies. And then Florencia does turn into a butterfly that’s bigger than the boat.
FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS, presented by Cincinnati Opera, continues 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall.