Thursday, March 22, 2018

A pleasure to behold but Florencia in el Amazonas jackknifes into murky territory at San Diego Opera

Principal cast singers of San Diego Opera's Florencia in el Amazonas
Nature’s ability to overwhelm us with its beauty, tempt us to explore it and wreak unexpected havoc when least we desire it is a prevailing force in the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia in el Amazonas. Potently, the journey through it can facilitate the self-discovery of truths, fears and hopes as well as bring out a myriad of emotions in transformative ways.

As the first Spanish language opera commissioned by a U.S. opera company, premiering at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, Florencia in el Amazonas has gone on to receive numerous revivals around the country. It’s a mysterious and atmospheric work that requires compelling stagecraft for the theatre. It’s also equally challenging for its variegated libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain - inspired by the style of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s magic realism - but sometimes it feels hard to find its dramatic beat. San Diego Opera’s new lush and moody staging, created by The Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theatre and directed by Candace Evans, goes far in keeping the work steaming along but, taking myself to Saturday evening’s opening night performance, something wasn’t sticking.

In its fictional story set in the early 1900s, there’s much excitement over La Scala-conquering opera singer Florencia Grimaldi’s homecoming and recital in the isolated Amazonian town of Manaus. Boarding the little steamer El Dorado, travelling incognito and having felt the loneliness of fame, Florencia’s real reason, however, is to find the love she left behind in a man, a butterfly hunter, who went in search of a rare butterfly.

Elaine Alvarez as Florencia Grimaldi
The opera’s title belongs to Florencia but it’s not entirely her show. Sharing the journey as she ponders a love given up, Rosalba, the journalist desperate to interview the diva she doesn’t recognise, is discovering it in the deckhand Arcadio and, wearing thin in love in their long years together, married couple Alvaro and Paula are trading barbs. When the El Dorado runs aground, the drama jackknifes, the magical realm of the Amazon gushes forth and revelations are made.

Evans’ director’s notes in the program on nature’s power to affect personal discovery point to such comparisons as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Into the Woods and The Tempest. With the Captain and man of mystery, Riolobo, making up its seven principal characters, we might even add the light-hearted 70s comedy series Gilligan’s Island in...”a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship”. I’ll put that image aside for now and make mention of designer Mark Frederic Smith’s scenic masterpiece: a handsomely crafted weather-beaten Minnow-sized twin-decked steamer that shifts on a revolve and that Evans utilises for all sorts of clever purposes. Linda Pisano’s costumes capture period and place beautifully assisted by Todd Hensley’s impressive lighting that colour the shift of day.

María Fernanda Castillo as Rosalba and Daniel Montenegro as Arcadio
Musically, Catán addresses the contrasts found in the story and balances them pleasingly. Catán’s evocative and stylistically meandering music is easily accessible, threading both late 19th century Romantic and Impressionist influences, of Latin rhythm with a notable lustrous dose of Puccini’s signature found in his ‘verismo’ operas. Shaping it in the pit, conductor Joseph Mechavich delved deep for its riches and brought together its multifaceted parts in an extended wash of unified sound with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s expertise on show.

Looking perfect in the role as Florencia, soprano Elaine Alvarez draws a woman of great sensitivity and enigma, the voice ripe and full of thrust. As part of the role, there are two sizeable arias to surmount but the prominent high tessitura seemed to result in a tightening of the voice. And while Florencia is the central focus for the journey, the role feels half-baked, especially given that she floats about having little interaction with others on board. On the other hand, the relationship that blooms between Rosalba and Arcadio steals the journey - shimmering soprano María Fernanda Castillo and warm tenor Daniel Montenegro form a compelling union in a convincing performance that showcases their broad stage talents.

Luis Alejandro Orozco as Riolobo and chorus of Amazon creatures
Guiding the El Dorado with gentle authority is smooth baritone Hector Vásquez as the Capitán, owning his smaller role assuredly and striking poignancy in his duet with Montenegro as his nephew the deckhand. Rich and sleek mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala ignites proceedings entertainingly with her bitter tongue as Paula alongside a more subdued husband played by characterful baritone Levi Hernandez, their rear-deck supper scene bringing a sense of lightness and bite to the table. And baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, as Riolobo, displays both muscularity in voice and physique as the mysterious force that lives in both realms and is the summoner of the Amazonian magical world of creatures.

The agile leotard-costumed dancers who create waves of movement against the boat are impressive but a few more would have really driven the effect. Not so the chorus of creatures who generally disappoint and distract as they clumsily parade across the stage as if on their way to some other function. By the time Florencia experiences some kind of transfiguration at opera’s end, it passed in an anti-climactic and confusing rush. Still, there is a great pleasure to behold in the work and Evans gets much of it done vibrantly.

Florencia in el Amazonas 
San Diego Opera
Until 25th March, 2018

Production Photos:  J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

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