In Review > North America

Florencia en el Amazonas

WASHINGTON, DC
Washington National Opera
9/22/14

In Review Florencia hdl 1214
Garrett and Goerke in Florencia en el Amazonas at Washington National Opera
© Scott Suchman 2014

When Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas had its premiere in Houston in 1996, it must have seemed the ultimate answer to people who complained that no one wrote operas like Puccini anymore. The late Catán did not fashion the sort of indelible ear worms that Puccini could effortlessly conjure to reel in an audience, but with its cornucopia of consonance and arching, aching melodic lines (many strongly reminiscent of La Fanciulla del West), the prismatically orchestrated score of Florencia remains a significant neo-romantic achievement. Washington National Opera affirmed that point in a new coproduction with companies in Los Angeles and San Francisco. To be sure, Catán’s determinedly conservative idiom can wear out its welcome. And the Gabriel García Márquez-inspired libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, about a beloved opera star returning to her South American roots to help reopen the opera house in Manaus and also reunite with a lover, can get a little too earnest, sentimental, fanciful. The whole thing goes over the top more than once. Still, there’s something genuine at the core, something absorbing about how the piece treats those age-old issues of life and longing. 

Director Francesca Zambello and others responsible for the original Houston staging reunited for this production, which was reworked and refurbished. Added to Robert Israel’s atmospheric set were video projections (S. Katy Tucker, designer), providing a sometimes witty folk-art touch. A quintet of athletic dancers, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, also provided a new dimension; their scanty costumes (by Catherine Zuber) conjured images of a primitive Amazon tribe but also, at key moments, exotic wildlife in and around the river. Zambello ensured such a natural flow to the action that even the most fantastical elements seemed logical, inevitable. 

On Sept. 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Christine Goerke gave a commanding performance as the diva Florencia, who boards the El Dorado for Manaus. Her voice turned a little edgy at the top, but the tone was otherwise plush. The soprano’s phrasing communicated stirringly, nowhere more so than during her rapt account of the big Act I aria. Norman Garrett was a standout as the boat’s mystical crewman, Ríolobo, with a deep, resonant voice inflected by many a telling dynamic subtlety. Providing considerable vocal and theatrical flair as the unhappy married couple on the trip were Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Paula) and Michael Todd Simpson (Álvaro). Her sumptuous mezzo filled the house easily and tellingly; his warm, evenly produced tone and often eloquent phrasing were matched by nuanced acting. The other pair onboard, an aspiring journalist named Rosalba and the captain’s hasn’t-found-himself-yet nephew Arcadio, were brought to life by soprano Andrea Carroll, whose radiant high notes hit the spot, and Patrick O’Halloran, who made up for a thin tenor with ardent delivery. (One of the opera’s most colorful ensemble scenes involves these two couples, one squabbling, one romancing — à la Bohème’s Act III.) David Pittsinger rounded out the cast as the Captain. His voice showed strain when pushed, but otherwise he sang elegantly. The chorus handled its assignments in vibrant fashion. The orchestra poured on the steam as conductor Carolyn Kuan guided the performance with evident affection and remarkable attention to detail. She had a lot to do with making this return voyage of Florencia en el Amazonas so engaging. spacer 

TIM SMITH

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