Composer: Daniel Catán
Conductor: Dean Wilkinson
Elizabeth Caballero: Florencia
Sarah Beckham Turner: Rosalba
Won Whi Choi: Arcadio
Lisa Chavez: Paula
Luis Ledesma: Alvaro
Kevin Thompson: Capitán
After a successful Tosca, which I happily attended back in January, and a reportedly not quite as successful Hopper’s Wife back in the spring, which I missed due to a lack of notice, not will, last week the resurrected New York City Opera seemed poised to continue unabated on the road to recovery with the New York premiere of Mexican-born Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas. A Spanish-language opera that was first performed in Houston in 1996, which is like yesterday in opera years, Florencia immediately sounded like a clever choice for the recovering company with a straightforward narrative and a constantly gorgeous score sure to get the approval of the more traditional part of audience while its contemporary flavor was bound to attract the more adventurous minds.
So on Thursday evening, my friend Christine – South American literature buff and Amazon veteran, not to mention birthday girl! – joined me in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, which was, all things considered, remarkably filled for a not so well-known opera presented on a warm summer school night.
Although the libretto is not actually based on any work of his, the story was overtly inspired by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s impressive œuvre and signature magical realism. As it was, the plot revolves around a steamboat trip down the Amazon taken in the early 1900s by a small eclectic group of South Americans, including a world-famous diva travelling incognito in search of her long-lost, butterfly-chasing sweetheart, who are all dealing with many different aspects of love, or lack thereof, in many different ways. Add to that the jungle, some piranhas and a cholera epidemic, and you have all the ingredients for rewarding entertainment.
She may not have been onstage as much I had thought she would be, considering that Florencia Grimaldi is after all the main character of the opera, but soprano Elizabeth Caballero resolutely rose to the vocal and dramatic challenge of impersonating the most acclaimed diva in the world with a voluptuous and powerful voice, which she notably put to excellent use during her three hair-raising arias. Even when her part was slowly veering toward maudlin, she still had her character keep her dignity and clear-mindedness, making her infinitely more complex than just an unfulfilled middle-aged woman desperately seeking her first and only love before it is too late. Or is it already?
The young and still relatively naïve couple that stubbornly fought their genuine feelings for each other for the longest time until they simply had to give in was endearing and well-matched. Incisive soprano Sarah Beckham Turner was fiercely, but not blindly, determined as Rosalba, a budding journalist and Florencia’s #1 fan, while clear-voiced tenor Won Whi Choi was all congenial spontaneity and burning ardor as Arcadio, the captain’s good-hearted nephew.
The older, love-weary and constantly squabbling couple contributed the bitterness of too many unpleasant times together as well as some priceless comic relief, including an admittedly rather unappetizing dish of fried iguana for dinner. Velvety mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez skillfully alternated between grumpy and melancholic as Paula before eventually coming to her senses with a little help from Amazonian magic, and smooth baritone Luis Ledesma was mostly resigned affability with a touch of mischief as Alvaro.
Bass Kevin Thompson was an unflappable captain with just the right amount of gruffness; bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos was the agreeable deckhand Riolobo as well as a memorable spirit of the river, whose most amazing feat of the evening had to be his surviving a terribly misguided butterfly outfit that definitely had too much reality and not enough magic about it.
The production supported the story more or less adequately with some engaging ideas that panned out brilliantly and other choices that did not work very well. For example, the sporadic use of videos turned out to be distracting and totally uncalled for. The footage of an actual boat trip down the Amazon, while interestingly exotic in itself, looked more suited for a documentary, and the visual presence of Cristobal, Florencia’s erstwhile paramour, felt superfluous and overly sentimental, especially during a cheesy Tinkerbellish finale that simply did not fly.
On the other hand, the dozen of dancers clad in blue bodysuits from Ballet Hispánico did a very good, occasionally outstanding, job boldly bringing the Amazon to life through their writhing and dancing in the foreground, which turned the enigmatic river into a bona fide character that was both tastefully abstract and incredibly real. And while the game-changing storm at the end of Act I may have been a bit facile in all its unrestrained mightiness, I found it musically and visually stunning.
Under the committed guidance of Dean Wilkinson, the orchestra delivered a beautiful performance that was overflowing with vivid colors, soaring melodic lines and plenty of unabashed prettiness all around. While there is no doubt that the general attractiveness of the composition – One third Puccini-inspired intense lyricism, one third neo-romantic lushness reminiscent of Strauss and Wagner, and one third delicately evocative neo-impressionism à la Debussy – made it easy for the audience to just take it all in without asking too many questions, and that was just fine.
After this strong conclusion of a short 2015-16 season and a downright compelling full 2016-17 season, opera-loving New Yorkers have good reasons to get their hopes up. It is going to be a long wait until September.