Daniel Catan’s Florencia Invigorates New York City Opera

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater; New York—The second installment in the New York City Opera’s hoped-for renaissance recently emerged victorious, unlike its ill-advised Tosca several months ago. Borrowing the production from Nashville Opera, it presented the New York premiere of Daniel Catan’s lush, neo-Romantic Florenzia en el Amazonas, which premiered in Houston in 1996 and has since been heard in Los Angeles, Bogota, Seattle, and elsewhere.

The plot of the 100-minute opera involves a riverboat sailing up the Amazon in the early 1900s to the opera house in Manaus. The librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Berain, in homage to Gabriel Garcia Márquez, refers to the story as “magical realism”, a sort of willful blurring of lines between dream/imagination and reality. Onboard are the diva, Florencia (in disguise), who 20 years before left the area to pursue a career in opera; her lover, Cristobal, a butterfly hunter; a writer named Rosalba, who is writing a biography of Florencia; Paolo and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple who bicker constantly; and the captain, his nephew Arcadio, and Riolobo, the captain’s helper, who is a somewhat mysterious figure—a go-between of sorts between the real world and the Amazon itself.

There is a violent storm during which Riolobo invokes the spirits of the river, and at the end no one can leave the ship because there’s been an outbreak of cholera in Manaus. Along the way, Arcadio and Rosalba give in to mutual love; Alvaro is drowned in and returned by the river, and he and Paula rekindle their love. But particularly in Florencia’s final scene, as her spirit wafts toward her long-lost love, she somehow becomes one both with Cristobal and with the essence of (or the actuality of) a butterfly.

A bit hokey, perhaps, but a certain hokey-ness can be forgiven due to Catan’s rapturous music, entirely tonal, with one technicolor climax after another. The two 50-minute acts go by quickly and the format is standard—there are arias, duets, and ensembles. Puccini, Debussy, and Ravel are all in the neighborhood. The river is omnipresent, surging under all, front-and-center; until the storm, this leads to a bit of sameness in tempo in the first act, but the vivid orchestration and singable, soaring vocal lines never let us down.  A reduced string section certainly helps, and wisely-used trombone glissandos and muted trumpets add variations of color. And the occasional introduction of samba rhythms is never overused or tacky.

The singers are well directed by John Hoomes and the physical production is as intriguing as it should be. A dozen members of Ballet Hispanico’s BHdos, androgynously sheathed in white head-to-toe tights, undulate at the front of the stage (with the playing area a couple of feet above them). Rippling lighting gives the impression of water; the movement is graceful and constant, a complement to Catan’s depiction of the Amazon. The filmed backdrop by Barry Steele is of a river and lush vegetation (it was actually filmed in the Everglades), and during the magical sequences, projections offer different forms of psychedelia and butterflies. Ildiko Debreczeni’s costumes evoke the era, but when Riolobo appears as a gigantic blue butterfly near the close of Act 2, I suspect that laughter was not the hoped-for effect.

The excellent cast is led by Elizabeth Caballero’s Florencia, whose bright, solid, vibrato-filled soprano impresses from her opening seven-minute aria to her closing transformation music. Tenor Won Whi Choi copes handsomely with Arcadio’s high-lying vocal line and shines in his lovely, dreamy aria in Act 1; he is joined in a passionate duet by the lovely Rosalba of Sarah Beckham-Turner. Lisa Chavez and Luis Ledesma are marvelous as Paula and Alvaro, respectively, whether sniping verbally at one another or finding joy in reuniting. Kevin Thompson is the sturdy Captain and Philip Cokorinos manages to change from earthly to otherworldly as Riolobo.

Conductor Dean Williamson leads the cast and NYCO orchestra in a beautiful, opulent reading. The audience greatly appreciated the familiar-yet-new music and fascinating work in the first of four performances; applause was thunderous.