Washington National Opera’s new production of Florencia in the Amazon carries us through many auditory and visual delights taking us on a trip up the Amazon with hints of magic as it “bathes us” in the atmosphere of its inspiration, the very special dreamworld-as-shape-shifter-of-reality of Columbian writer Gabriela Garcia Márquez.
Hats off to director Francesca Zambello to commit such a pan-American creative team to collaborate on a new production of this contemporary opera. The late Mexican composer Daniel Catan produced a lush score, a blend of sounds that harks back in some ways to Puccini and Strauss but also incorporates the marimba and other rhythmic pulse of Latin American music. Librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain is a woman steeped in literature, philosophy, and the multiple cultures of Latin America. Her homage to Márquez delivers a strong case that we need more operas in Spanish and more treatments of works from our southern neighbors.
The story was encouraged and fashioned under the guidance of Márquez. Dreamlike, it has resonances of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog’s film with Klaus Kinski, Fitzcaraldo. In the opera, a group of people travel up the Amazon River into the jungle, each of them seeking something precious and illusive, thinking it will restore them and bring them their life’s desire. The strange “otherness” of the jungle forces them to encounter their fears and own demons and becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Florencia, an aging opera star, has returned to her native land where she had once found love with a lepidopterist. Now she hopes to relinquish fame and fortune in order to rekindle love with her butterfly catcher and perhaps the flame that ignited her own voice. (A singer’s voice is as fragile and ephemeral as a butterfly, and oh, how it can dazzle.) Florencia’s former lover, Cristobal, was himself seeking the most rare of butterflies, and had presumably got lost in the jungle and long since died, or so muses the Captain of the boat. He echoes what the unhappy American soldier learns in Coppola’s own cinematic homage to Conrad, “Never, never get off the boat.”
While the butterfly catcher never appears in the opera, the butterfly makes a great metaphor for the story. A creature that denotes the power of transformation, it holds out with a flash of its wings the promise to all that to grow in our own true cycle of life, we must move forward and embrace change. I found that the most powerful aspect of the writing was that the promise of transformation is one shared by the entire cast of characters. It is not just Florencia’s story. (This aspect of the opera made it feel very contemporary.)
Two couples share the journey up river. One is made up of two young people on the brink of love and determined to escape its clutches. The other couple is older and jaded, full of disillusion about their relationship and reduced to sniping at each other.
The four characters are quite delightful, and so is their singing. American soprano Andrea Carroll is especially dazzling as Rosalba, the young writer and would-be Florencia biographer. Carroll’s voice proved every moment to be bell-like and clear but also lusciously expressive. She embodied her role delightfully. Spanish mezzo soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera gave a stunning debut performance at the Kennedy Center as the more mature, and world weary, Paula. Costumed gorgeously in a pale, butterfly-colored green gown by Catherine Zuber, she carried off her upper-class role with aplomb and a beauty that reminded me of Elizabeth McGovern’s Duchess in the British television import Downton Abbey.
Michael Todd Simpson has less opportunity than the women to show off his voice and acting range, but is nonetheless most effective in the scenes he has as a man frustrated by a carping wife and the loss of idealism. Patrick O’Halloran, as Rosalba’s love interest (well, if they both weren’t so busy being modern and unsold on love,) is a blossoming tenor. Dramatically, he carries off a rather complicated dramatic arc from being the somewhat green and bumbling journeyman on his uncle’s (the Captain’s) boat to a man who can take the bridge and steer the boat up river as well as take charge of his own life and channel his feelings to win his heart’s desire.
Christine Goerke has the lead role. Her voice is one of those tricky heavier sopranos, which I imagine takes longer to warm up. Opening night, she seemed to hit some false notes and got screechy to my ear in some high notes in the first part of the opera. She only came into her own in the second act. By the end and especially her triumphant final aria when she has her own metamorphosis, she excelled and dazzled us.
Two others to mention are stunning singer-actors both. David Pittsinger is a bass-baritone, for whom I would, like the characters in the story, travel up the Amazon, risking cholera and anacondas, to experience. He makes me believe in his character in every role I’ve been privileged to see, and somehow makes singing seem an effortless extension of his emotional being. In this he plays a wisdom figure, a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is captain of the ship and offers advice and a philosophic response to life. But rather than walk about as a wooden figure, he fleshes out a nuanced and full life in the role. From his quizzical smoking of a pipe on the deck, staring out into the jungle, to his tiny little ministrations of kindness to the mysterious woman I believe he recognizes on his boat–or is it something more? – he has me enthralled. He is both supremely expressive in his solos, conveying the music at its deepest level, and, when singing in duets and company, confidant and generous in blending with others.
I have watched Norman Garrett come up “through the ranks” of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. He has always gotten my attention, but here he has come into his own. His voice grows ever richer as he matures. In this opera, he embodies a complex and mysterious creature, a kind of river boatman in tune with nature and spirits of the river. I love the rare experience of seeing singer-actors “fill” their roles energetically through their legs. Garrett’s voice and gestures come up through his feet and are marvelously expressive. He did more in a single moment, leaning out over a railing and reaching to the waters, then most singers do in a whole opera.
I must also extol the choreography of Eric Sean Fogel and the gorgeous dancing of Durell Comedy, Alison Mixon, Christopher Pennix, Matthew Steffens and Ricardo Zayas. Sometimes they skipped over the “waters” as fish leaping, or birds or butterflies hovering. At other times, they conveyed a totemic vocabulary of movement, like the spirits of the river and ancestors of the people who now live in the forest. In one scene they staggered across the stage as native villagers, hauling and pushing coffins of cholera victims, an image which resonated eerily with the devastation caused by the Ebola virus communicated to us nightly through the media.
Weakest in the story and staging was the opening chorus scene with flat lines of “natives” half-heartedly holding up and selling wares. It was unnecessary, and the show works better when it became a tightly focused “chamber opera.”
FLORENCIA IN THE AMAZON
Closes September 28, 2014
Washington National Opera at
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $300
The lighting by Mark McCullough used a bold palette throughout, starting out an intense golden yellow to evoke extreme heat of the sun, but then moving into greens, purples, and blues to capture not only a sudden tropical storm but a kind of magical, other-worldly landscape. S. Katy Tucker created some wonderful projections which filled the stage and featured animations – in the first half of lovely butterflies and birds flying across the green landscape then changed in Act II to a dark and more mysterious world, reminding me of Rousseau, with spiky foliage and adding roiling waters as if the river was an aquatic dragon-creature.
As mentioned before, Katherine Zuber’s costumes delight — with their graceful lines for the young couple’s and the heavier, rich robes for Florencia that suggest she has dragged them out of trunk after trunk living her diva life.
The river is a character in this opera, make no mistake. Everyone is changed by it. Director Zambello would entice you to come up-river yourselves. You are bound to be taken on a special journey indeed. Book passage, for there are only four more performances.
Florencia in the Amazon . Composed by Daniel Catan . Libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain . Inspired by the Writings of Gabriela Garcia Márquez . Directed by Francesca Zambello . Conducted by Carolyn Kuan . Featuring Christine Goerke and Florencia (Melody Moore will play the role Sep. 24), Norman Garrett as Riolobo, Andrea Carroll as Rosalba, Patrick O’Halloran as Arcadio, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula, Michael Todd Simpson as Alvaro and David Pittsinger as Captain. Set design: Robert israel . Costume design: Catherine Zuber . Lighting design” Mark McCullough . Projection design: S. Katy Tucker . Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel . Co-produced by Washington National Opera and LA Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
FLORENCIA IN THE AMAZON
Closes Sept 28
Mike Paarlberg . City Paper Florencia, sung with powerful virtuosity by rising star and classic soprano Christine Goerke
Anne Midgette . Washington Post a rambling dream of an opera
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld Catán’s score is the perfect embodiment of the magical realism
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts Zambello’s acute eye and ear for this highly original work pay off beautifully