Catan’s “Florencia:” A Magical Quest for Love

For being the work of a contemporary composer, Daniel Catan’s “Florencia of the Amazon”, which opened the 2014-2015 Washington National Opera season under the direction of Francesca Zambello, throbs with the often gorgeous, surging tones of 19th-century romanticism.

For sounding like a traditional opera, “Florencia” nevertheless appears often like a literary work, with a libretto by Marela Fuentes-Berain that tries and often succeeds to embrace and ech the tone and feel of its source material, the works of the famed Columbia master of magical realism Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

For the WNO, it’s also a first production, although not for Zambello, who directed and staged the original production at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. Given that the source is Marques—principally, it appears, his great novel “Love in the Time Of Cholera”—there’s a stream-of-consciousness about the proceedings, an air of cultural surrealism, as if the characters and the audience are outward bound on more than one kind of trip.

These particular characters are setting out toward the fabled city of Maunus, where the legendary opera diva, Florencia Grimaldi, is supposed to give a transforming performance. On board are a disparate and desperate group of characters: a constantly quarreling married couple forever searching for love; the sturdy captain in love with the sea; his struggling nephew Arcadio; Rosalba, a lovely young journalist hoping to finish her life’s work biography of Florencia; and Riolobo, who is the guide for the audience and the characters on this Amazonian journey as part crew member and part a member of the realm of the river god. Florencia also comes aboard at the last minute, although no one, except perhaps for the captain, recognizes her. Given that this is a journey of experience, bad things happen including death, wind, flood, and a terrible storm. And given that we’re in the realm of magical realism, things unhappen too.

Florencia, sung with powerful virtuosity by rising star and classic soprano Christine Goerke, is on the journey with the hope of finding a long-lost lover, a butterfly hunter named Cristobal who disappeared into the jungle. She does and she doesn’t find him.

Along the way, we’re treated to the appearance of a group of native sprites, led by the terrific dancer Alison Mixon. They act sometimes like river sprites, sometimes as saviors, sometimes as malicious and haunting presences.

The atmosphere, with a backdrop of projections and scrim that evoke a kind of lost world of flying creatures, ravishing sunsets, onrushing mists and sky, moves in somewhat helter-skelter and static fashion as the ship, the “El Dorado,” passes by. The boat is problematic at first—in an atmosphere of magical realism, it seems to be entirely too realistic and unimpressive. The captain may love his ship, but it’s hardly deserving of adoration. But then, this isn’t “Showboat” either. There are rough waters ahead.

Like many of the new devises of story telling in the production, you get used to the boat, because it does serve a purpose; it serves up the characters and set pieces like a wheel of fortune. Here is a card game where the couple squabbles; here is Florencia in a powerful aria about her love and desire to be reunited with her lover; here are Rosalba (beautifully sung by Andrea Carroll) and Arcadio (a dashing Patrick O’Halloran) discovering their mutual attraction in full-voiced duets, at turns suspicious, afraid, spirited and romantic.

The orchestral pace is ably led by young conductor Carolyn Kuan. It’s surprisingly full of urgent, powerful notes of brass. The cast, on the whole, is full of terrific singers – notably Goerke, but also O’Halloran, Carroll, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Michael Todd Simpson as Alvaro. Norman Garrett is less effective in his singing but he presents a charismatic force as Riolobo nonetheless.

In the end, in spite of or because of the troubles on the Amazon, love is still the answer, requited and reunited, even for Florencia, who is both renewed and transformed in a spectacular and beautiful image that won’t soon leave your mind.

Goerke will sing the role of Alvaro Sept. 20, 22, 26 and 28 while Melody Moore will take the stage Sept. 24.

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