Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas

A work of great beauty and power, Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas is the composer's second opera. Loosely inspired by Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera follows the story of Florencia Grimaldi, an aging opera singer who embarks upon a steamboat journey down the Amazon River. As the journey progresses, the boat is beset by pink rain, foul waters, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. As Florencia and her fellow travelers are carried deeper into the jungle, they experience various revelations, until finally the diva's spirit is transformed into a vast, emerald butterfly.
In many ways, Florencia is a culmination of Catán's previous work -- an early piece for soprano and orchestra, Mariposa de obsidiana ("Obsidian Butterfly") was based on a poem by Octavio Paz, and his first opera, La hija de Rappaccini, was inspired by another tale of a magically transformed beauty, Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" as retold by Paz. First produced in the United States by the San Diego Opera, La hija de Rappaccini was critically acclaimed, and brought Catán to the attention of the Houston Grand Opera in 1994. (It also brought him to the attention of Gabriel García Márquez, who had seen the work's premiere in Mexico City, and expressed interest in working with the composer.) Looking to commission a Spanish-language work to reflect the city's increasingly Latin character, HGO director David Gockley, in cooperation with opera houses in LA, Seattle, and Bogatá, asked Catán to produce a new work, an opera that celebrated the "artistic, musical, literary, and visual aspects of Latin America" as well as being "the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years."
Given this marvelous opportunity (and not to mention somewhat daunting challenge), Catán turned to the works of Gabriel García Márquez for inspiration. Failing to find one isolated story that suited his needs, he decided to borrow a few themes from Gabo's work in general, with an emphasis on Love in the Time of Cholera. Gabriel García Márquez agreed to the project, given the condition that the libretto be penned by his protégé and filmscript collaborator, Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Using a river-voyage down the Amazon as their setting, Catán and Fuentes-Berain plunged deep into the lush world of "magical realism" and crafted a story about love, redemption and transfiguration. The opera premiered in Houston on October 25, 1996 to wide acclaim, and then made its way to the LA Opera, the Seattle Opera, and the Bogatá Opera. It proved to be so popular that the Houston Opera has kept it in its repertory, where it was revived to popular acclaim in the Spring 2001 season.

Gabo & Catán
Daniel Catán, Gabriel García Márquez,
& Marcela Fuentes-Berain

It is an opera that deserves its success, for Florencia en el Amazonas is, in a word, beautiful. Free from the mawkish sentimentality that too often passes for beauty in today's world of pop ballads, film scores, and Disneyfied neo-Romanticism, Florencia possesses the artful beauty of traditional opera; a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification. Comparisons with late Puccini are inevitable and certainly apt, but much of Catán's score touches upon the flowing Impressionism of Debussy and the vibrant colors of Ravel as well. It also contains some engaging touches quite compelling to the modern ear -- frequent marimbas add a slightly exotic flavor, and the percussion section underscores the music with intriguing Latin rhythms. Catán scores the opera for a relatively small orchestra, which adds a sense of precision and punch -- the strings never dominate, and each instrument is clearly articulated. The music simply shimmers, occasionally opening up into an expanse of surging sound, floating the vocals aloft on an iridescent wave of color.
Happily, Catán's vocal writing is well-matched to his orchestral fluency. Catán is a believer in old-school lyricism, and while much may be said for the astringent vocal gymnastics or Broadway influences of some modern opera, it comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure, unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. A few critics have questioned whether Catán has really broken any new ground; but in a world where the definition of opera itself has been stretched to include such otherwise praiseworthy pieces as Einstein on the Beach, The Cave, and Jackie O, it comes as a relief to know that someone can still write something that Doctor Juvenal Urbino himself would find immensely satisfying. Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace, voices entwine around each other like lovers, and not a line feels clumsy or out of place. Still, while Florencia's lyricism might represent a welcome return to the Italian mode, there's really no single moment that particularly stands out. I find myself craving a single, show-stopping aria, a distinctive melody that sticks in your head, brings tears to your eyes, and has you craving wine, candlelight and a huge bowl of pasta. If Florencia has echoes of both Turandot and Pelléas et Mélisande, I would have liked to hear a little more of the former than the latter, at least in the vocal writing.
But again, compared to the vibrant tapestry of the whole, this comes as only a minor quibble. Florencia is a wonderful work, one that deserves to find its voice through numerous productions. Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what's wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia en el Amazonas stands as a hopeful reminder that love, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.

Synopsis

Florencia advert

The following synopsis is adapted from the program notes:

The action takes place sat the port of Leticia, Colombia and then on the riverboat El Dorado.

Act I
Riolobo, a character who can assume various forms, announces that the El Dorado is setting off down the Amazon for the opera house in Manaus where the legendary diva Florencia Grimaldi, who has not set foot in her native South America for twenty years, will give a concert. Florencia arrives on the dock incognito to make the river journey. Her motive for this trip is to search for her long-lost lover, Cristóbal Ribeiro da Silva. Twenty years ago, they parted on the river when he went in search of the world's rarest butterfly, the Emerald Muse, and Florencia set out to pursue her life as an opera diva in Europe. Among the other travelers are the ship's Captain, his nephew Arcadio, the young journalist Rosalba, who is working on a biography about the famous singer, and Paula and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple journeying to hear Grimaldi in hopes of rekindling their marriage.
At dawn as the ship leaves behind the busy port, Florencia reflects on her history and her motives for making the trip. Arcadio and Rosalba grow closer as they exchange confidences. Alvaro and Paula attempt to dine on deck, but exchange only bitter words. Later a card game takes place between the two couples that underlines their differences. Florencia passes a sleepless night and then learns from the Captain that the butterfly hunter has not been seen for many years. Suddenly a storm of pink rain develops. Riolobo calls upon the gods of the river; the injured Captain calls for help. Alvaro falls overboard as Arcadio takes the helm, and the ship runs aground.

Act II
In the quiet after the storm Florencia awakens, wondering whether she is alive or dead. Arcadio and Rosalba rejoice to find they have survived the storm. Paula sees Alvaro's body and laments his death. Suddenly, he awakens and the passengers resume their journey to Manaus. Florencia and Rosalba argue over the source of the opera singer's talents. Florencia argues so persuasively that the writer realizes the woman standing before her is the diva herself. It is the first of other epiphanies.
The passengers anticipate the end of their journey as the ship's arrival in Manaus is announced. But suddenly a message comes that cholera has spread in Manaus and no one may disembark. As Florencia collapses, realizing she may never find Cristóbal, her spirit drifts towards his in a mystical transformation.

Composer Notes

The following notes are taken from Albany Record's Web site:

My journey down the Amazon, the real and operatic one, began in the studio of my dear friend Alvaro Mutis. He knows the jungle intimately and has written about it all his life; at the same time he is a great lover of opera. The combination could not be better. We met many times in his studio. Prints of magnificent riverboats occupy the spaces normally reserved for family photographs. It was there that I learned about the dangers of river navigation, and also about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears. In the opera, Florencia undertakes a journey that will bring her back to her origins. It is, I believe, the story of the return journey that we all undertake at a certain point in our lives: the moment when we look back at what we once dreamed of becoming, and then confront what we have now become. As Florencia sings her final aria, her voice, her song and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly. She breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other. The image of the butterfly, supremely beautiful from the moment of its birth, is overtly present at the end of Florencia. But it is an image that has been present in my mind as I composed several of my works. I have asked myself why. I think it is my way of understanding the moment when something is no more, my way of transforming it, like when I finish an opera, and say good-bye to characters that have lived with me for so long and have taught me so much, that grew out of me so I could be born out of them, that are, in the end, indistinguishable from myself.

CD Information

Lookout for Hope

Florencia en el Amazonas
Houston Grand Opera / Patrick Summers, conductor
Audio 2-CD / Released 2002
Our Price: $36.98

A recording of the 2001 HGO production, Albany Record's 2-CD set is the only commercial recording of Florencia en el Amazonas currently available. It is a handsomely produced set, with a full libretto in Spanish and English, cast biographies, an introduction from the composer, and an essay by Efrain Kristal entitled "Florencia en el Amazonas: Literary Anecdotes." Although Kristal's essay is fairly superficial, it nevertheless serves as a brief introduction to the opera and its literary context; though a deeper introduction or analysis would certainly be welcome.
The recording itself is anything but superficial, however, and highlights the opera in full bloom: the sound is rich, the vocals well balanced, and the performances are both spirited and sung with conviction. It is a live recording -- complete with applause -- and while I would prefer a touch more dryness to the mix, to highlight Catán's exotic percussion, I am just happy that a recording of this remarkable work is finally available. I heartily recommend it to opera lovers and fans of García Márquez alike.
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Additional Information

General:

Albany Records -- The homepage for Albany records, the label that puts out the recording of Florencia.

Albany's Florencia Page -- Contains a sound sample and some information about the recording.

Houston Grand Opera -- The homepage for the HGO, which has Florencia in its repertory.

Houston Theater's Florencia Page -- This page has numerous colorful images from the HGO production.

Schirmer Catán Page -- Schirmer Music maintains a section on Daniel Catán, where you can order the scores to his music and read press releases.

Reviews:

"Romantic and Awe-inspiring" -- Lisa Chang and Jim Harper's positive review from the The Rice Thresher, November 1, 1996.

Fantastic Voyage -- John Mangum's Florencia review from the Daily Bruin, October 2, 1997.

Into Uncharted Waters -- A very informative article about Daniel Catán and Florencia. From the LA Times Calendar, October 5, 1997.

A Savvy but Sketchy Florencia -- A lukewarm review of the LA production of Florencia. From the LA Times Calendar, October 7, 1997.

"A Sparkling Jewel" -- A very positive review by Paul Berenson, classical radio announcer at KDB and Web-based opera critic.

If you'd like to hear more of Catán's music, you can explore some of his work below:

Rappaccini's Daughter (Opera Highlights); Obsidian Butterfly
Daniel Catán (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 2002
Our Price: $7.98

20th Century Mexican Symphonic Music Vol 2 - Contreras, Ibarra
Daniel Catán (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1999
Our Price: $14.22

20th Century Mexican Symphonic Music Vol 3 - Zyman, Lavista
Daniel Catán (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1999
Our Price: $13.27

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Go To:

Music Main Page -- Back to the Music main page, where you will find the standard Macondo menu.

Daniel Catán -- Back to the Daniel Catán page

Bill Frisell -- To the Bill Frisell page

Modena City Ramblers -- To the MCR page.

Moxy Früvous -- To the Moxy Früvous page.

Radiohead -- To the Radiohead page.

Roger Reynolds -- To the Roger Reynolds page.

Juan Vicente Torrealba -- To the Torrealba page.


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2 June 2003