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Heart of Lightness: Florence of Amazonia

Ed Rampell: El Dorado’s gold, but of course, is true love. So take someone you love to see a tour de force down the Amazon that never loses its head of steam.
Florencia en el Amazonas

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Paula), baritone Jose Carbo (Riolobo), and barritone Gordon Hawkins (Alvara). (Photos: Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONASOpera Review

Who says the operatic art form is dead? Simply put, Florencia en el Amazonas is among the finest operas this reviewer has ever seen. Certainly, in terms of stagecraft and theatrical special effects, Daniel Catán’s Amazonas is the best, and it even exceeds the Broadway production of Phantom (which is, of course, set largely in an opera house) in terms of onstage visual wizardry. However, regarding plot, it is more like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, with its tale of ivory traders embarking on an odyssey into the jungle.

But instead of floating down the Congo River on a steamboat into “deepest, darkest” Central Africa, the opera’s El Dorado (as the paddle wheeler is symbolically named) traverses the Amazon River, from Leticia to Manaus. Located in northeastern Brazil, according to Lonely Planet Manaus is the Amazon’s largest city and a major port for ocean vessels, although it is about 1000 miles from the Atlantic. However, Amazonas thematically departs from Conrad’s meditation on imperialism and reversion to savagery -- instead of seeking ivory this work composed in 1997 by Catán, with a libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, is about that elusive quest for “a crazy little thing called love,” as Freddie Mercury so eloquently put it.

Florencia en el Amazonas

Tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Arcadio and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Rosalba, In back, ancy Fabiola Herrera (Paula) and barritone Gordon Hawkins (Alvara).

The passengers aboard this ship of fools for love are inspired by Colombian literary lion Gabriel García Márquez, although this work is not an operatic adaptation of any of the novels per se by this winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The dramatis persona include: The title character (Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel), Florencia Grimaldi, a renowned diva traveling incognito, en route to reopen Manaus’ opera house and seeking her long lost love Cristobal, a butterfly hunter. Paula (mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera from Spain’s Canary Islands who, appropriately enough, sings like, well, a canary) and Alvaro (American baritone Gordon Hawkins) are a middle aged couple who hope the flame of their passion will be relit by hearing Florencia’s stirring arias. The lovely, youthful Rosalba (Nawlins’ soprano Lisette Oropesa) is a would-be writer.

En route Rosalba encounters the young sailor Arcadio (Sonora tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz, who played Alfredo in LA Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 La Traviata last season), who expresses ennui regarding his job to his uncle, the straight arrow Captain (American bass-baritone David Pittsinger). Having set sail on numerous voyages himself, this reviewer knows that crewmates can be colorful characters, and in Act I Australian baritone Jose Carbo perfectly captures this piquant quality as Riolobo. But, unfortunately, in the second act this character -- whom Performances Magazine calls the “spirit of the river” -- all but floats away, offstage.

Amazonas’ real “star” is the El Dorado -- kudos to scenery designer Robert Israel and director Francesco Zambello, whose recent evocation of a man o’ war at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in last season’s Melvillean Billy Budd also featured a maritime theme. The trials and tribulations that befall the El Dorado during its river sojourn are spectacular to watch onstage, with a grand finale which recalls the title of a Márquez novel. Lighting designer Mark McCullough does yeoman’s work to assist in rendering these FX, along with Israel and spellbinding projections (more below).

Florencia en el Amazonas

Soprano Veronica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi and bass-bariton David Pittsinger as the Captain.

At times the paddle wheeler (your gallivanter-cum-scribbler recently sailed aboard one, the Emeraude, across Vietnam’s exquisite Halong Bay) actually moves onstage, especially starboard to portside and back. As for going full steam ahead, the charming images rendered on scrims and backdrops by projections designer S. Katy Tucker provide the illusion of frontal movement down (or up?) the river. The projections of the Amazon’s flora and fauna are lovely to behold in this enchanting production, enhancing its magical realist vibe, with imagery that has an Henri Rousseau dreamlike quality.

(Fun Fact of the day: Despite his many jungly canvases, Rousseau never set foot in or his eyes on a jungle in his entire life.)

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Catán’s LA Opera-commissioned Il Postino -- which this critic was blessed to experience at its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler in 2010, with none other than Il Maestro, Placido Domingo himself, portraying Chilean Communist and poet Pablo Neruda, with Ms. Herrera as Dona Rosa -- also made superb use of scrims and onstage special effects to literally visualize poetry and poesy, the act of creating poetry.

A quintet of dancers who may be Amazonian indigenous people, such as the Yanomamö (NOTE TO READERS: This is a blatant attempt by your humble scribe to impress readers with the breadth and depth of his anthropological acumen), or water sprites, performing balletic movements choreographed by American Eric Sean Fogel, enhances the opera’s ambiance of enchantment.

Florencia en el Amazonas

Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Gordon Hawkins.

Like librettist Fuentes-Berain (who is also an acclaimed screenwriter mentored by Márquez), Catán hailed from Mexico City, which probably explains why their opera is sung in Spanish, instead of Portuguese, Brazil’s national language (overhead English supertitles translate the libretto). Catán, who taught music at Santa Clarita’s College of the Canyons, helped to bring the operatic medium into the 21st century and to enthusiastically infuse it with new blood, utilizing up-to-date technology for artistic purposes. His opera version of Frank Capra’s 1941 populist picture Meet John Doe is -- due to the lamented Catán’s untimely death in 2011 -- presumably not completed. If this means auds will never hear/see this Capra-esque revamp romp onstage and sung, the only words of woe worthy of conveying your grief stricken wordsmith’s chagrin at this most unhappy prospect are the Bard’s, when Hamlet discovers the skull of his childhood jester at a graveyard:

“Alas, poor Yorick!

I knew him, Horatio.”

(Say it ain’t so, Gary Cooper!)

Fuentas-Berain’s lyrics, Catán’s music, ably conducted by Grant Gershon, combined with soaring performances expressing the meaning of romance, plus eye-popping sets and special effects that are aerial (keep your eyes peeled, Dear Reader!), as well as nautical, combine and conspire to make Florencia en el Amazonas a voyage of the blessed. El Dorado’s gold, but of course, is true love. So take someone you love to see a tour de force down the Amazon that never loses its head of steam.

Ed Rampell

Florencia en el Amazonas is being performed on Sundays Nov. 30 and Dec. 14 at 2:00 p.m. and Dec. 10, 18 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell