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Florencia en el Amazonas

LOS ANGELES
LA Opera
11/22/14

Perhaps no work written in our own time so consistently recalls late Romantic opera as Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas.  Not only does the score have Puccini, Debussy and Richard Strauss written all over it, but the poetic evocation of an exotic Amazon, the concept of a physical journey as a process of spiritual awakening — and the distinctly unfeminist idea that a woman can only fulfill her full potential in life through sexual union with a man — place Florencia firmly in the fin-de siècle of the last century. There is a danger that it might look and sound retrograde.

The signal achievement of Florencia’s latest appearance at the LA Opera (seen November 22), in a refreshed staging directed by Francesca Zambello, is that it did not. Rather, under Grant Gershon’s baton, Catán’s score unfolded with a graphic splendor that brought fully to life the roiling waters of the Amazon and the gushes of desire that it symbolizes. This was no nostalgic recall of an age lovelier than our own, but an urgent summons to attend to emotions that are always present and immediate.

The tripartite treatment of love also has a self-consciousness that strikes one as modern. Florencia Grimaldi, longing for her vanished lover Christóbal, is the character musically most steeped in the past, and Verónica Villarroel, looking for all the world like a transplanted Tosca, endowed the role with grand operatic aplomb. The mercilessly persistent, high tessitura took toll on her voice — there were moments of hoarseness toward the end — but the final rhapsody in which she imagines herself a butterfly, the goal of Christóbal’s obsessive quest, had a mesmeric quality, which, had it not been for one or two technical missteps in staging, would have risen to the level of magic that the opera aspires to. The perturbing conflict between adoration and youthful terror at commitment received compelling treatment by Lisette Oropesa and Arturo Chacón-Cruz, the young lovers Rosalba and Arcadio. Both are attractive and personable performers; while Oropesa’s voice is still light and supple, there are hints in it of the darker dramatic roles that Florencia herself would have been master of. Chacón-Cruz sang with disarming lightness, leavened by irony and despair. A modicum of comic relief was provided by Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Gordon Hawkins as the warring middle-aged couple, Paula and Álvaro, who made the most of this underwritten and unsatisfactorily concluded relationship: Álvaro is drowned, purely, one suspects, for pathos’ sake, only to be returned to life by the voice of love calling to him in death. Here the opera creaks. José Carbo, with his compact and incisive voice, made Ríolobo the guardian angel of the journey and David Pittsinger was an effectively reticent, avuncular captain.

Zambello’s production, with Robert Israel’s design, is familiar from the 1997 premiere of the opera, but here Zambello has given the staging freshness with S. Katy Tucker’s Avatar-like projections— which make the Amazon an uncannily dangerous presence — and dancers, excitingly choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, who aptly embody the spirit of the Amazon. The narrow confines of the riverboat upon which all the action took place somewhat inhibited dramatic impact; for example, the ecstasy of Rosalba’s discovery that she is in the presence of Florencia is substantially weakened by it having to take place on a narrow passageway rather than in open space where its full symbolic impact could be felt. Musically, the extended passages of ecstasy with their deeply lush harmonies sometimes tired the ear; there were moments where one longed for the astringency of a Bartók or Stravinsky. Nevertheless, this venture into the terrain of late Romanticism offered much that was thrilling, even deeply moving. spacer 

SIMON WILLIAMS

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