Opera Review: FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on January 10, 2022

in Music,Theater-Chicago

FLORENCIA EX MACHINA

Mexican composer Daniel Catán wrote a handful of operas before his untimely death in 2011 at the age of 62. Most premiered in the United States, including Florencia en el Amazonas, which was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Seattle Opera. Although it premiered in 1996, this is Lyric’s first production of Florencia as well as its first mainstage Spanish-language production. The production design is beautiful and enchanting, but the singing is not up to the high standards one expects from Chicago’s premiere opera company.

Apart from its composer and librettist (Marcela Fuentes-Berain), there’s not much that is specifically Mexican about Florencia en el Amazonas. The story, inspired by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s acclaimed novel Love in the Time of Cholera, is set on an Amazon riverboat traveling from Colombia to Brazil. In addition to its captain and his nephew Arcadio, El Dorado’s passengers include the titular heroine, a young journalist (Rosalba) writing the diva’s biography, and a middle-aged couple, Paula and Alvaro. Florencia’s magical realist plot is rounded out by the absent Cristóbal, object of Florencia’s affections, and Riolobo, a fantastical character who appears variously as a member of the boat’s crew and as a bird interceding with the river on the boat’s behalf.

Florencia en el Amazonas features not one, but three love stories. First, there is the love of Florencia for Cristóbal, a butterfly-hunter last seen heading into the jungle in search of the Emerald Muse. Second, Paula and Alvaro rekindle their love after Alvaro falls into the river and is mysteriously returned to the boat. Lastly, Arcadio and Rosalba fall in love despite despising love with their words. There is a little comedy, but otherwise Florencia is more of a mystical romance.

Catán’s score, as so many have noted, shows the influence of late Romantic composers like Puccini and Strauss, but there is some Latin American flavor thrown in in the form of salsa rhythms and steel drums. Overall, the score is heavy on brass, which often drowns out the singers. This could be the fault of Lyric debut conductor Jordan de Souza as well as a few singers whose voices simply aren’t strong enough.

As the titular diva, Ana María Martínez sings and acts well, as Lyric audiences have come to expect from her ten roles since 2008/09, but her performance provokes neither awe nor ire. Better than moderately good, Martínez just doesn’t catch fire the way one would hope in such a prominent role. Nicaraguan-American soprano Gabriele Reyes, however, makes an impressive Lyric debut as Rosalba. Her diction is clear and precise, her voice strong, and tone lovely.

The remaining cast performances are either poor or simply okay. Deborah Nansteel as Paul, Levi Hernandez as Alvaro, and Mario Rojas as Arcadio fall in the latter category. Their chief faults are failure to rise above the orchestra and/or muddy diction, which was often unrecognizable as Spanish. In addition to these faults, American bass Raymond Aceto as the Captain sings tonally hollow, his voice sounding more throaty than chesty. Lastly, Ethan Vincent makes a poor Lyric debut as Riolobo; his voice simply isn’t big enough to fill the opera house and in trying to do so appears uncomfortable and out of his depth in the role.

Francesca Zambello directs Florencia with the magical realism its composer and librettist aimed for. Peter J. Davison’s set is well-designed and makes perhaps the best use this reviewer has yet seen of Lyric’s massive stage turntable. The riverboat on which all of the opera’s action takes place sits neatly in the middle of it, turning naturalistically this way and that with the Amazon’s currents. Five dancers (seven are listed in the program) acting as river spirits add beauty and movement to a production that is otherwise relatively motionless; cast members walk around on the boat and sing from stationary positions.

Florencia en el Amazonas reminds this reviewer of another Latin American opera, Bel Canto, that debuted at Lyric in 2015/16. That opera was also ambitious in its scoring and storytelling, offered romance at its core, and gave a prominent role to nature. Where Bel Canto brims with violence and terror, Florencia features love and mysticism. It’s a beautiful opera, but this production renders Florencia en el Amazonas’ beauty only in part. A stronger cast could have made all the difference.

photos by Cory Weaver

Florencia en el Amazonas
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on November 28, 2021
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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