FGO to present “Florencia”–a modern opera with old-fashioned melodies

By Eric C. Simpson

Ana Maria Martinez will sing the title role in Florida Grand Opera's "Amazonas," which opens Saturday night.

Ana María Martínez will star in Florida Grand Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which opens Saturday night at the Arsht Center.

The company premiere of a contemporary opera usually means taking a chance on a piece few, if any, have seen before. 

Yet when Florida Grand Opera opens its first-ever run of Florencia en el Amazonas on Saturday night, it will be presenting that rare thing–a recent opera that has achieved considerable fame in its own time. 

Daniel Catán’s second opera, which follows a star soprano and her company of travelers on a journey down the Amazon River, premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996 and has since had no fewer than ten successful runs in the United States alone, with such notable companies as the Los Angeles Opera, Washington National Opera, and New York City Opera. 

Audiences are often surprised to find how easily they connect with Florencia, says Ramón Tebar, FGO’s principal conductor. “This is always a big challenge for any opera company or symphony orchestra with contemporary music,” he said in a phone interview. “But with Catán it’s always a surprise because people don’t expect to recognize beautiful melodies.” 

“Daniel Catán believed that melody is a basic element to write for singers. Many times when opera companies present a contemporary opera, they feel they need some kind of introduction because the language is very avant garde to some audience members. But with this piece you find it’s inherited the old tradition of opera–you could see influences by Puccini.”

Ana María Martínez, who is taking on the role of Florencia for the first time in this run, agrees. “I love how he marries the melody–because he’s all about melody–with the text in particular in this piece. It is just so satisfying. I feel that I can tell the story in a gorgeous way because of his music.” 

Though she hasn’t sung the title role before, this won’t be Martínez’s first encounter with Florencia–in Houston Grand Opera’s  2001 revival, she sang the role of Rosalba—a young journalist who tags along to chronicle Florencia’s voyage and historic return to her home city of Manaus. 

Daniel Catan

Daniel Catán

“Through the years [Catán] would call me every now and then and say, ‘So when are you going to sing Florencia?’,” she recalled. “And at the time I wasn’t anywhere near singing that. So I said ‘Once I feel that I can start to tackle it, I’ll give it a try,’ and he looked at me perplexed: ‘What do you mean? It’s difficult?’”

“Vocally they’re written very, very differently,” she said. “The role of Florencia to me is a combination of Tosca and Donna Anna in Giovanni. If you were going to compare it to Puccini it’s like singing Musetta and then singing Mimi, except this is much harder than Bohème. So it would be like graduating from the young ingenue to the grand prima donna role–and it’s humbling because a career, like life, happens very quickly. And in singing this kind of role I realize, OK, I’ve graduated to what I call the ‘big girl’ rep.”

The production coming to Miami this week originated at Opera Colorado in 2012. This run is being supervised by the staging’s original director, Jose Maria Condemi. 

Florencia is inspired in large part by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose novels Condemi read as part of his early education; bringing that particular element to life in a conventional staging can be challenging, so he uses video projections to create otherworldly effects. 

“There are these two elements of the story,” he explained. “On the surface of it, these characters are taking a boat on the Amazon to go see a concert. And then there’s the deeper meaning of why are they there and what an accident on the boat brings up in them. Being faced with matters of life and death brings up the deeper themes. 

“That sort of tailored the way we approach the visuals of the production: I felt that if we just have a boat onstage all the time, that would serve the naturalistic part very well. But I felt I would be stuck with that realism later on in the story when I need the more magical-realistic elements to take over. So from the beginning I use video projections in a pretty significant way.”

Tebar had several chances to work with Catán before the composer’s sudden death in 2011, including as an assistant conductor for Cincinnati Opera’s production of Florencia in 2008. Working closely with the composer was an education in itself, be believes.

“I didn’t just learn about his music, but also how composers used to approach their own music,” he said. “Sometimes as performers we tend to be very strict with what is written. He had in mind, for example, another Florencia for the premiere. So there were a couple of notes or values in the length of certain notes that he wouldn’t hold or he did it higher or lower.

“And this is the way composers used to work. Mozart wrote new arias when he had new singers for his own operas. So he did Don Giovanni in Prague, then he wrote new arias for the tenor in Vienna. Working with someone like Daniel, you learned that the music should be alive.”

Martínez, too, became close to the composer when she sang Rosalba in 2001, and is glad to see that his music continues to be admired by audiences around the world. “Daniel was a genius and so warm-hearted; and clearly he had his own musical language that stands out. And I think that’s one of the reasons why some of his pieces have such active presentations worldwide.

“I feel that I’m growing with the opera. It’s almost like working on a brand-new piece that your friend wrote. It makes me feel as if I’m back in conservatory days in a way– collaborating with my peers and creating something.”

Florencia en el Amazonas opens 7 p.m. Saturday and runs through May 5 at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.


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Wed Apr 25, 2018
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