Florencia en el Amazonas was performed Saturday night for the first time by Pittsburgh Opera, and the audience on hand at the Benedum was treated to a production that was brilliant to the ear and eye alike. The opera is the first Spanish-language composition to be produced by the company, but the same can be said for the many opera companies which have staged the work since its 1996 premiere: for while opera has a long history of popularity in Spain, Mexico and parts of South America, works in the language most familiar to audiences in these countries are few and extremely far between. And most certainly none have achieved the success of this masterpiece by Mexico City native Daniel Catán.
A great deal has been written of the late Mr. Catán’s compositional style, and invariably the names of other composers consume the larger part of the descriptions explaining the enduring popularity of Saturday night’s opera. The composers mentioned are always Italian, German and French musicians of other eras. Perhaps this looking elsewhere for influences may be explained by the fact that the list of successful Spanish-language operas is virtually nonexistent. But if a comparison or explanation for Florencia’s success are mandatory, it might be more obvious to look to Jake Heggie, a living American, and leave Puccini and the others out of the mix. Neither Catán nor Heggie have any fear of the “grand opera” idiom idealized by many others so long ago. The composers’ knowledge of what opera audiences want to hear, and their ability to deliver it, has kept a couple of Heggie’s works – and Florencia en al Amazonas – on the bills well past the here-today-gone-tomorrow fate of so many other modern works. Catán’s ability to compose beautiful orchestration that propels equally beautiful vocal writing explains the success of his opera. Its sound is distinctively its own, and stands firmly on its own feet, with credit due to no one but Catán.
The story, set at the turn of the last century, centers around Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer returning to her native South America for the first time in years. Traveling incognita from Columbia to an engagement at the Manaus, Brazil opera house, Florencia boards the El Dorado for a journey of several days that she hopes might also shed light on the disappearance of a long lost love, a hunter of exotic butterflies, into the jungles surrounding the Amazon. Fellow passengers include a young biographer hoping to meet Florencia in Manaus, and a couple looking to rekindle their fading relationship in the course of their voyage to hear the famous singer. Piloted by the Captain and his nephew, those aboard are guided through a series of perils by the magically benevolent Riolobo. But even he is
powerless to protect them from the cholera epidemic that prevents them from leaving the boat once it reaches Manaus, nor can he change for Florencia the fact that once someone is lost to the Amazon, that’s pretty much the end of their story.
The plush, continually flowing orchestration swirls in waves evocative of the mighty river, and is highly suggestive of the mysteries of the surrounding jungle. Clever emphasis on the strings, brass or timpani, as the opportunities present themselves, is effectively employed, and Antony Walker and his instrumentalists delivered a powerful reading of the richly colored score. The vocal writing leans heavily on the ensemble for the greater part, and the singers are essential in allowing the most to be made of a libretto that is somewhat anti-climacteric.
As Florencia, Alexandra Loutsion was every inch the grand prima donna, soaring easily through the wonderful opportunities Catán has given the role, and looking majestic in several dazzling period costumes. Her voice is a solid column of silvery sound that she can swell to soar over the densest orchestration, or float as a delicate thread of tone that carries to the rafters no matter how softly she sings. The moving soliloquy in which Florencia must connect to her lost love in but spirit alone, and which brings the opera to its conclusion, was sung quite beautifully. Rosalba, the young journalist in search of a subject she doesn’t realize is standing before her, was sung by Resident Artist Natasha Wilson. Making her first appearance with the company, she gave a fine display of a lovely soprano voice that only on occasions was a tad light for the orchestration.
A large task has been given to the role of Riolobo, the magical and mystically benign force protecting the travelers through various dangers. A more perfect fit for the role than baritone Craig Verm is hard to imagine, and whether he was seated, standing, going through interpretative dance-styled gyrations or suspended in mid-air high above the stage, his powerfully pure voice and adept acting skills were rewarded vociferously at the final curtain. Renowned baritone Nathan Gunn has been such a major force on the operatic scene for so many years that it comes as a bit of a surprise that he is still a relatively young man. The role of Alvaro is not one that allows for the greatest display of his voice, but he made as much of it as was possible, although there were moments when his tones were somewhat veiled.
He was ably partnered by mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, as his wife Paula, who sang the role’s music with much beauty, acted the part with a subtle flair for the comic and was costumed quite enchantingly. Impressive company debuts were made by bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam (the Capitán) and tenor Andres Acosta (Arcadio). Mr. Sewailam’s resounding voice possesses a cavernous range, of which the part’s music takes full advantage, and Mr. Acosta sang the role of the Captain’s nephew with appealingly fresh and lyrical tones. His scenes with Ms. Wilson were especially engaging. The large and colorfully costumed chorus had but a few moments to shine.
The scenic effects and lighting, aided by projected imagery, are carried out quite effectively by the stage resources available at the Benedum. The audience has so much to watch and listen to that the production is sure to entertain a wide variety of tastes. There were far too many empty seats in the Benedum, and those who might be discouraged by unfamiliarity with the opera are highly encouraged to remedy that situation.
Three performances remain, so for tickets, full production details and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
The Artistic Team for Florencia en el Amazonas –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Original Concept and Director, Jose Maria Condemi; Revival Director, Stephanie Havey; Original Set Designer, Phillip Lineau; Costume Designer, Elizabeth Poindexter; Original Lighting Designer, Ken Yunker; Lighting Design recreated by Stevie O’Brian Agnew; Original Projection Designer, Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Matthew Haney; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight
Music by Daniel Catán
Libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.
Categories: Archived Reviews