Singers vie with orchestra yet Met’s “Florencia” delivers the magic

Mon Nov 20, 2023 at 4:10 pm
Ailyn Pérez sings the title role in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s’s stated goal with the expansion of its repertoire is to attract more diverse, as well as younger, audiences. The initiative may be a bit late to the table, but that’s all in the past. Based on the large number of young people in the audience for Sunday’s matinee performance of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas there is reason for hope that the company will succeed. And if director Mary Zimmerman’s delightful concept for Florencia en el Amazonas is one of the hooks, more power to it.

As with Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which opened the season, the Met wasn’t taking much of a risk in staging Florencia. Granted, it had been over a hundred years since the Met produced an opera in Spanish and only the third at that, (the previous two were Granados’s Goyescas in 1916 and de Falla’s La Vida Breve in 1926). But since its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, Florencia has been staged repeatedly in the Americas and Europe, even if it hasn’t always received critical accolades. 

Catán’s score for the opera is lush, lyrical, and colorful. A self-avowed romantic, the Mexican composer, who died at the age of 62 in 2011, could spin a melody. The opera’s libretto is by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, who was a student of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It is loosely inspired by Márquez’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. The plot is less paramount than Fuentes-Berain’s fluency in capturing the mysteries of love, the supernatural, and nature in a style derived from the magical realism embraced by her teacher.

The story takes place aboard the steamship El Dorado traveling down the Amazon River to the Brazilian city of Manaus, where they hope to hear the celebrated opera singer Florencia Grimaldi perform. The singer, like the other passengers on board, is on a quest for love. For Florencia, it is the hope of being reunited with her lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who long ago disappeared into the Amazonian jungle.

Among the passengers is Rosalba, a journalist and devoted fan of Florencia who is writing a book about the reclusive diva, claiming to know everything there is to know about her. Rosalba meets and begins to fall in love with Arcadio, the nephew of the ship’s captain, but it is a passion that both resist at first.

They are contrasted with Paula and Álvaro, a long-married couple who constantly bicker. The forces of natural catastrophes and the supernatural combine to make both couples realize the depths of their respective loves.

Railings, a few portholes, and a ship’s funnel suggest the deck of the El Dorado, which navigates through the lush green jungles. The latter are mere painted backdrops, but it is the magic and the mysteries of the Amazon River are at the heart of Zimmerman’s enchanting production.

Puppets and dancers create schools of shimmering fish, pink dolphins, a brilliant kingfisher, and an alligator. Lush pink water lilies float on the river. A squirming iguana in a domed silver platter is brought to show the diners what is on the menu for dinner. Crows pull black coffins flying yellow flags down the Amazon signify the outbreak of cholera in Manaus. Puppetry in an opera production is hardly innovative, but Zimerman and her team make it fresh.

Gabriella Reyes and Mario Chang are Rosalba and Arcadio in Florencia en el Amazonas. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Catán’s opera is not a perfect creation, but the score is an ideal vehicle for Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He drew playing from the orchestra that is full of energy and passion, yet with careful attention to detail. The sound from the pit was always exciting, but on Sunday too often overpowered the singers. At this performance, only Gabriella Reyes as Rosalba consistently rode those wonderful waves of sound effortlessly, with her voice blooming beautifully at the crest of every melody. 

If Ailyn Pérez did not have comparable vocal presence, her Florencia was still a welcome star turn for the soprano. Pérez looked and acted every inch the diva in costume designer Ana Kuzmanić’s elegant creations. There was no faulting Pérez for the voluptuousness of her voice, nor the passion with which she sang. Her shimmering, floated high notes, however, were what impressed, in no small part because Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra were at their most attentive to dynamics and balance.

Mattia Olivieri as Riolobo, like Reyes, had no trouble projecting over the orchestra. This was in part because Riolobo’s vocal line is primarily narrative and underpinned by far less expansive orchestral writing, but equally due to the vividness of Olivieri’s performance. The young Italian baritone is making his Met debut with this role and he is an exciting find.

As Arcadio. Mario Chang displayed a fine tenor, which effectively expressed the conflict of a reluctant lover. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera’s Paula was eloquent in grief as she sang of Paula’s remorse in failing to truly love Arcadio, who she believes to be dead. Michael Chioldi energetically bickered with Paula, with his resonant baritone giving voice to love with warmth and depth. David Pittsinger, subbing for an indisposed Greer Grimsley, was a solid, philosophical captain of the El Dorado

The final scene involves a transformation from the physical to the spiritual which is equal to any in opera and something which this production captured perfectly. Pérez, alone on stage and attired in an iridescent black gown, was at her most compelling giving voice to Florencia’s fear of never again seeing Cristóbal. Suddenly she was transformed into a beautiful butterfly with the appearance of softly, fluttering wings as luminous as her singing. As her spirit hovered off to join his in the jungle, the effect was simply magical. 

Florencia en el Amazonas runs through December 14.

One Response to “Singers vie with orchestra yet Met’s “Florencia” delivers the magic”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2023 at 8:06 pm by Bessy Reyna

    Thank you for not destroying with your review how special and magical this opera is.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS