Houston Florencia

A Savvy but Sketchy Florencia

Opera review: The Spanish-language libretto resonates like notes for a Garcia Marquez novel.

Tuesday, October 7, 1997
LA Times Calendar

By: Mark Swed
Times music critic

"Florencia en el Amazonas," the opera by Daniel Catán that was given its West Coast premiere by L.A. Opera Sunday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is like the guy who tries so very hard to please that you can't help but like him. Sure, he may not be very interesting, even a little infuriating in his lack of character, but he seems to mean well and that has to count for something in this world, doesn't it?

A joint commission by Houston Grand Opera (which premiered it a year ago), L.A. Opera and Seattle Opera, "Florencia" is a long-overdue effort by American companies to expand the repertory by looking south. There is a dearth of Spanish-language opera, though there are plenty of singers fluent in Spanish, and lively new music being made throughout Latin America. A new opera by a Mexican composer could well help publicize all of that. And finally there is the very reasonable expectation that, given the originality and importance of Latin American fiction in recent years, a Latin American imagination could also bring something special to opera.

"Florencia" is a historic first commission from America for a Mexican opera, and it is in many ways a savvy commission. Though trained as a modernist in places like Oxford and Princeton, Catán has returned to Mexico City and attempted to return to his roots as well. An earlier opera, "Rappaccini's Daughter," produced by San Diego Opera, with a libretto based on a work by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, revealed a composer with a wonderful command of sonority and a finely honed sense of theater.

With "Florencia," Catán had hoped to turn to another Latin American icon for his libretto, Gabriel García Márquez, but wound up with García Márquez's protegee, Marcela Fuentes-Berain. She's a screenwriter and playwright, assigned to create Márquezian characters and transfer his magic realism, that quality of representing the wondrous adventures of a psyche by ineffable little weirdnesses in the surrounding world, to the stage. Instead she spells out the characters and their relationships as if the libretto were a set of Cliffs Notes for a García Márquez novel.

"Florencia" is an opera of relationships on an Amazon journey. A tired old couple tries to rekindle love, a young couple is dazzled in the face of a new love. And Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, tries to find a love lost to the jungle many years before. The ship's avuncular captain dispenses pat wisdom. And old man river is personified as a Prospero-like river god, Riolobo, who dispenses the pat magic.

That magic one hoped would be in Catán's music, which goes down with Puccinian ease. The score supports the singers with great lyric arches of bland melody, overblown into predictable climaxes. The orchestration for small band with the emphasis on winds rather than strings and with the spice of unusual percussion instruments is masterful in a way imitative of Ravel. One had hoped that a second acquaintance with the opera, after Houston, would reveal hidden strengths in the score, but for this listener it seemed like déja vu all over again all over again.

Catán, a charming fellow by all accounts, does have a charisma, however, that is apparent in the sheer dedication he gets from performers. The production from Francesca Zambello is a handsome one. A nifty revolving ship that dominates the stage by designer Robert Israel. There can't be too much color for the Amazon, and Paul Pyant (lighting) and Catherine Zuber (costumes) know it.

The real glory of "Florencia" is the performance. This is singable music and the singers are splendid. Most were in the Houston cast, although Rodney Gilfry, a macho Riolobo, was not. All own their roles. Sheri Greenawald is poignant as ever as Florencia; Greg Fedderly and Yvonne Gonzales are fresh and young as Arcadio and Rosalba; Suzanna Guzmán and Hector Vásquez are not fresh and young and aren't supposed to be; they are forceful and disturbing as the bickering Paula and Alvaro. Gabor Andrasy is an imposing Captain.

The production has a few changes for the better since Houston. The river spirits are dancers with banners, not cute animals. And Riolobo, now taken over by a muscular singer, can fly. Unfortunately, though, his wires got crossed the first night, and he was grounded.

Copyright (c) 1997 Times Mirror Company