|Elizabeth Caballero, Kevin Thompson, Lisa Chavez, Luis Ledesma, and Sarah Beckham-Turner on board The Eldorado (Photo by Sarah Shatz)
In 1985, the famous Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez published his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, a brilliant work of magic realism, the themes of which seem to have influenced Daniel Catán's striking opera Florencia en el Amazonas. The opera, with libretto by Catán's student Marcela Fuentes-Berain, was the first Spanish language opera to be commissioned by a major United States opera company; indeed it was a co-commission by the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Seattle Opera; it premiered in 1996 and it took twenty years to get to New York!
As our readers may have noticed, we love the sound of the Spanish language which "sings" as well as Italian. We can scarcely believe that we were enthralled by a contemporary work but indeed we were. The music is lush and the orchestration lavish, not very far removed from Puccini. Under the baton of Maestro Dean Williamson, the dense orchestration was given clarity and definition. New York City Opera presented it at the Rose Theater last weekend.
There was not a weak leak in the vocal department nor was there a single dramatic lapse. As the eponymous Florencia, soprano Elizabeth Caballero sang her heart out and was totally believable as a diva traveling incognito to the opera house in Manaus, where she hoped to reconnect with the lost love of her youth, not knowing whether he was dead or alive.
Also on board, for further romantic interest (we eschew modern opera when it is political--we want our operas to be about love) were two couples. Soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner was completely convincing as the young woman who has been taking notes for two years for a book she hopes to write about Florencia. Her focused instrument sailed over the orchestration.
Her potential love interest, the young nephew of the captain, is named Arcadio. He is vaguely unhappy with the tedium of shipboard life and longs to be free to explore the world. Terrific tenor Won Whi Choi inhabited this character perfectly and sympathetically.
In contrast with this young couple who are facing their fears of falling in love and relinquishing their independence, there is a second middle-aged couple suffering from the curdling of their love. Paula (marvelous mezzo Lisa Chavez) and Alvaro (the gifted Mexican baritone Luis Ledesma) are painfully embattled, bickering over everything. It is only when he is washed overboard during a storm that she realizes that pride has overwhelmed her love for him.
Unlike the dissatisfied Arcadio, the captain of the Eldorado, strongly sung and played by bass Kevin Thompson, is thoroughly content with his lot in life, plying the waters of the Amazon. He represents stability and the world of reality.
The mystical world is represented by bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos, in the role of Riolobo (river wolf). His singing was superb but he was visually more believable as the sturdy first mate than as a spiritual being. His appearance as a butterfly was, well, kinda strange.
The last character of the opera was not sung. It was the Amazon itself and well represented by the orchestra. It gives life and it takes life. The orchestra did a fine job of creating a wilderness of birdsong and waters that can be peaceful or churning. The latter was abetted by the agile dancers of Ballet Hispanico's BHdos who tumbled artistically in front of and below the stage proper.
This production originated from Nashville Opera, conceived by John Hoomes, who directed, with Barry Steele (Video and Lighting Designer) and Cara Schneider (Set Designer); it was bursting with creativity. Contributing enormously to its success were the effective rear projections; it made us feel as if we too were traveling on the riverboat with scenery passing by. The shallow stage of the Rose Theater served well as the deck of the boat with ropes strung across and a captain's wheel.
When Florencia is alone in her cabin during the storm, we experienced the claustrophobia as well. Although magic realism lends itself more to the medium of the novel, the projections provided sufficient visual metaphors to realize the intentions of the story. At the end, Florencia is transformed into a butterfly joining her beloved Cristóbal, a butterfly collector.
Ildikó Debreczeni's costumes were appropriate to the early 20th c. and quite lovely.
Some vocal highlights included not only Ms. Caballero's moving arias but the duets between Ms. Beckham-Turner and Mr. Choi. The point of the story seems to be that Florencia sacrificed her love for the sake of fame but came to realize that this love was the wellspring of her success. Hopefully, Rosalba and Arcadio will allow their love to blossom and find sustenance therefrom.
If you have read this far, we would like to share with you a linguistic point that you might have missed if you are not Spanish speaking. Just as the boat approaches Manaus, the passengers cannot disembark for Florencia's recital because the city has been stricken by the fatal cholera. The word "cólera" represents not just a disease but also means "passion, ire, anger". We believe that the librettist, as well as García Márquez, was making a point about love that endures for decades. Please let us know what you think.
(c) meche kroop