FGO triumphs with an old-fashioned operatic beauty in “Florencia”

By David Fleshler

Ana María Martínez, "Florencia en el Amazonas." Photo: Chris Kakol

Ana María Martínez sang the title role in FGO’s first production of “Florencia en el Amazonas” Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Chris Kakol

A gorgeous musical and visual spectacle unfolded Saturday at Miami’s Arsht Center, with Florida Grand Opera’s first performance of Florencia en el Amazonas, a 1996 work that takes place during a boat voyage through the Brazilian jungle.

This Spanish-language opera is this season’s offering in a series programmed by FGO general director Susan Danis to appeal to South Florida’s distinctive demographics. But Florencia marks a departure from the dark, often political, operas that had filled this niche in the past.

At a time when so many contemporary operas are talky, plot-driven and realistic — even based on true events — here is an opera that is unabashedly operatic, sensual and unconstrained by the requirements of natural laws. Written by Daniel Catán, the late Mexican-born composer who earned a doctorate at Princeton, it’s a singer’s opera, rich in arching vocal lines and yearning Romantic harmonies. Maybe a little too rich, since soaring climaxes seemed to come every six or seven minutes, but that’s a quibble in a work that’s full of imaginative, lushly scored music.

Set in the early 1900s, Florencia tells the story of a group of restless souls who buy tickets for a steamboat trip up the Amazon to the jungle city of Manaus for a performance by a beloved soprano, Florencia Grimaldi. Travelers include a bickering middle-aged couple; a journalist who wants to be Grimaldi’s biographer and yearns to meet her singing idol (unaware she’s also on board); the captain’s nephew, who dreams of becoming a pilot; and the diva herself, longing for her butterfly-hunter lover, who disappeared years ago into the rainforest in search of a rare species.

Inspired by the works of the novelist Gabriel García Márquez, librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain wrote a work set in an Amazonian fantasyland in which people turn into butterflies and opera stars can travel incognito, even among their fans, without any form of disguise. Also, during a would-be romantic dinner on the boat, the proper, married couple suffers the shock of being offered a marinated, sun-dried iguana on a stick, so there’s that, too.

Catán studied at Princeton with Milton Babbitt, but there’s no trace here of Babbitt’s ultramodernist serialism or use of electronics. In fact, the music of Florencia has been compared to the works of Puccini, Debussy and Ravel. And it’s true that with few exceptions, there is little in the work’s harmonies, rhythms or musical textures that would have surprised a reasonably sophisticated 1920s opera fan.

The soaring vocal lines, expertly drawn to build to climactic moments, were reminiscent of Puccini. But the dominant influence appeared to be Ravel in the sheer sensuality and tactile richness of works such as Daphnis et Chloé. Woodwinds, in particular, played complex, Ravel-like figures that appeared to portray the lush fertility of the rainforest. The orchestra, under principal conductor Ramón Tebar, made the most of this music, with glossy, full, unblemished playing in strings, winds and brass, and menacing undertones in the glints of dissonance that came at moments of emotional pain and physical danger.

As the music played, projections designed by Aaron Rhyne showed stunning images of the undulating river, the ferns, trees and flowers in orange, blue and pink, and an occasional multi-colored bird. The projections were the focal point of Florencia’s stage set, and worked perfectly with the music to communicate the glory and menace of the rainforest.

As the opera star Florencia Grimaldi, the Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez brought to the role a tone of world-weariness tempered by hope, as she returned to scene of her lover’s disappearance. Vocally, she was outstanding, with a dark, creamy middle register that perfectly brought out the sensuousness of the music. With stunning clarity, she floated pianissimo high notes, soft and luminous, that easily projected through the hall. (The role was scheduled to be sung Sunday by Sandra Lopez.)

As for the rest of the cast, there wasn’t a weak link. As the quarreling married couple, Paula and Álvaro, the mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya and baritone William Lee Bryan brought out the pathos, pain and disillusionment that their harsh words represented. Late in the opera, when Paula thinks Álvaro has died in a storm, Kaganskaya’s sang with solemn passion and luminous tones over eerie orchestral dissonances.

As the opera star’s would-be biographer, Rosalba, the soprano Cecilia Violetta López played the role with naive, idealistic charm and a flexible, sweet-toned voice. As her lover, the captain’s nephew Arcadio, the tenor Andrew Bidlack came off as her counterpart in earnest, youthful idealism, with his dreams of leaving the river to become a pilot.

As the steamer’s Capitán and possibly the only untroubled soul on the boat, Rafael Porto brought a genial manner and warm humanity to the role.

Baritone Steven LaBrie handled the unique dual role of Riolobo, the ship’s mate and a quasi-magical creature who functions as a narrator. During a rousing storm scene, when lightning and roiling black water appeared on the screen, LaBrie appeared high above the stage as a brilliantly colored butterfly calming the winds. This scene that could have come off as hokey were it not for the brilliant lighting, the vibrant coloring of the butterfly — green, purple and blue — and LaBrie’s imposing vocal and physical presence.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi did a fine job throughout of melding the realistic and fantastic. Florencia en el Amazonas may be the most immediately likeable and accessible of the contemporary operas put on by FGO in recent years. Listeners who fled the astringent tones and dour plots of some of the others may want to give this one a try.

Florencia en el Amazonas continues through May 5 at the Arsht Center in Miami. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “FGO triumphs with an old-fashioned operatic beauty in “Florencia””

  1. Posted Apr 30, 2018 at 1:11 pm by JoAnne Bander

    It was a joyous evening of music and the phenomenal moving backdrop made us feel like we were on the river. Great way to end the season.

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Sun Apr 29, 2018
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