In Review > North America

Florencia en al Amazonas

DENVER
Opera Colorado
3/27/12

As John Lennon put it, picture yourself in a boat on a river — that's the gist of Daniel Catán's Florencia en al Amazonas. Unlike that Beatles song, there were no tangerine trees or marmalade skies in Opera Colorado's Spanish-language production (seen March 27). But there could have been, since the Mexican composer was inspired by the magic realism of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Catán's reliance on this blending of reality and fantasy offers a carte blanche to designers. 

In this staging (coproduced with Utah Opera), Phillip Lienau and Aaron Rhyne took advantage of the story's vivid imagery and evocative jungle setting, utilizing giant projected digital photographs to create a backdrop of mysterious beauty, as the rickety ship El Dorado navigates the Amazon. Rather than construct a semi-realistic boat (as in the work's Houston Grand Opera premiere in 1996), set designer Lienau rolled out an unadorned wooden deck that traversed the width of the stage, now and then sliding left or right. In keeping with this departure from reality was a dangling copper boiler, occasionally lowered from the rafters. Projected scenes changed subtly, at one point revealing a huge pair of female eyes among the shifting clouds. Unfortunately, Rhyne went overboard with his animated storm-tossed ocean, representing a downpour that threatened the boat in Act I's climax. Another distracting image occurred during Florencia's final aria, when discs resembling huge oatmeal cookies descended in front of projected oversize daisies. 

To his credit, director José Maria Condemi kept his focus, shaping the characters with earthy, three-dimensional emotions, though the wordy, episodic libretto of Marquez protégé Marcela Fuentes-Berain hampered any sense of dramatic flow. Not surprisingly, the tuneful, unblushingly Puccini-esque score meshed well with this staging's eye candy. Catán, a talented Mexican composer who died last year at sixty-two, favored soaring phrases, expressive high notes, extended arias and impassioned love duets — all meat and potatoes for singers — and Opera Colorado's cast ate it up. 

As Florencia, soprano Pamela Armstrong brought a welcome humanity to the enigmatic diva, despite Berain's frustrating inability to crystallize Florencia's motives and back story. Effortlessly, Armstrong nailed the lengthy confessional arias that opened and concluded the opera, capitalizing on their dramatic and lyrical sweep with smoothly traversed shifts in dynamics and coloring. Nearly stealing the show was the mystical (and similarly sketchy) Riolobo of Keith Miller — a former college football player from nearby Boulder who's carving a nice career at the Met and elsewhere. His baritone is imposing and multi-hued, his acting clearly delineated. 

Two peripheral couples expanded on the theme of love's rocky road. The squabbling old marrieds, Paula and Alvaro, were capably sung by Beth Clayton and Hector Vasquez (though the latter's clumsy reappearance from the river drew chuckles of disbelief from patrons). Inna Dukach, Mimì in the company's 2010 Bohème, displayed finely shaded singing and stiff acting as the title character's irrepressible groupie Rosalba. Greg Fedderly, as her reluctant love interest Arcadio, was only intermittently interesting or vocally secure. Veteran bass Kevin Langan held his own in the under-utilized role of the ship's captain. Ramón Tebar led a first-rate pit orchestra in an impeccably nuanced reading of Catán's vivid score. spacer

MARC SHULGOLD

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