Thursday, September 25, 2014

Florencia en el Amazonas at WNO

WNO opened its season this past Saturday with Daniel Catan's 1996 opera, "Florencia en el Amazonas," a sort of riff on the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Fresh off her acclaimed Elektra at the Proms, Christine Goerke starred as the titular mysterious opera singer in a production directed by Francesca Zambello, previously seen in Los Angeles.

Some might carp about this being "easy" contemporary opera but the appeal of Catan's music is undeniable. The shimmery textures alternating with soaring lyricism make one think of Debussy, or at least all the really money parts of Debussy. But the music always manages to keep our attention without devolving into the syrupy.

The libretto follows the individual issues of the passengers of a river boat en route to a rare recital from the fabled singer. Florencia, on board unbeknownst to most of the passengers, pines after a lover who may be lost in the jungle; Rosalba (Andrea Carroll) a writer who is obsessed with the singer, yearns to finally hear her and gets involved with the captain's restless nephew (Patrick O'Halloran); the captain (David Pittsinger) tries to straighten out his son; and unhappily married couple Paula and Alvaro (Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Michael Todd Simpson) are trying to reconcile their differences.

The promised Gabriel Garcia-Marquez-isms abound throughout the piece, most notably in the character of Riolobo, a sort of omniscient Amazon trickster character who narrates much of the action. Riolobo is a great device, establishing from the outset that this show won't devolve into the kind of cinematic literalism that is often a ticket to dullness for contemporary opera (See Trag, Am). Recognizing the inspiration behind the meandering pace and quirky story beats certainly helps, but its unclear if the story works because the ticks are familiar to us or because the libretto really succeeds on its own terms. A clunky Act I finale, in which the principles reiterate their motivations to minimal dramatic effect amidst a storm on the river, suggests the former might be the case. But if some of the stories feel phoned in, others achieve moments of real poignancy, like the unexpected reuniting of the married couple. But these are mostly thoughts that come later. The important thing is that Florencia nevers feels labored--more or less, the libretto manages to match the diaphonous textures in the score.

And of course, all of this is moot when Christine Goerke starts singing Florencia's glorious music. Catan has written a truly great showcase for the dramatic soprano here, with two stunning set pieces anchoring the beginning of the first and second acts, plus a Liebestod-esque finale. Goerke took some time settling into the punishing first aria, with a few rough placements here and there, but once she hit gear, she excelled at her usual mesmerizing standard. Supporting cast was strong all around--special shout out for Patrick O'Halloran's bright energetic tenor in the roustabout captain's son role.

The production is attractive if frustratingly literal at times. The action takes place on a huge "realistic"  steamboat which turns on a stage revolve to reveal different rooms and scenes, with attractive projections showing the progress of the Amazon and adjust with the position of the boat. A set of dancers, perhaps unnecessarily dressed as Amazon "natives," represent Piranhas, waves, logs, etc. Carolyn Kuan led a persuasive account of the score from the WNO orchestra.

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