New York City Opera shows renewed life with Catán’s “Florencia”
The reconstituted New York City Opera seems bent on silencing any doubters. Having already announced an impressively full 2016-17 season, the company is finishing its comeback year with Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, and Wednesday evening’s rewarding premiere was the strongest performance that the reborn NYCO has offered yet.
The Spanish libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain draws heavily on the works of Gabriel García Márquez, creating a (more or less) ordinary scenario and injecting into it supernatural elements. Passengers aboard the riverboat El Dorado journey to Manaus in order to see a performance by the soprano Florencia Grimaldi, who is secretly among them, searching for her long-lost love, a butterfly hunter named Cristobal. Along the way they are beset by a vicious storm and they arrive at their destination only to find the city in the throes of a cholera epidemic–but love triumphs in the end, after a fashion. Drawing inspiration from many sources, Fuentes-Berain’s conception at times feels overcrowded, but the story that she tells and the characters that populate it are compelling nonetheless.
Catán’s music is not the most daring or individual to find its way to an opera stage. Romantic in spirit and thoroughly impressionistic in realization, his gestures can become repetitive. At the same time, his writing is intensely vivid; there is a painterly touch to his style that always seems to fit the emotions and drama of the piece. The music richly evokes the setting with thick, humid writing for strings, shimmering woodwinds and marimba to depict the waves of the river, and hot furnace blasts of brass at crucial moments.
The production, originally seen at the Nashville Opera, has one tremendously beautiful staging element: the river, ever present in the story and in the score, is presented by about a dozen dancers from the Ballet Hispánico. Wearing silvery-blue body suits and flecked from above with shimmering light, their gracefully rippling movements, choreographed by Nicholas Villeneuve, make the Amazon a character unto itself.
Otherwise, though, the staging veered distressingly far into the realm of camp. The set provides a serviceable minimum to suggest the deck of a riverboat, but the banks of the Amazon–the more crucial scenic element by far–are created entirely through video projections designed by Barry Steele. At their best, these have a mesmerizing effect, simply by virtue of depicting a calm journey down a seemingly endless river.
Too often, though, the staging leans heavily on the projections as a narrative aid, and they fall flat—most notably in the opening sequence, in which Florencia woos a man in a white lounge suit whom we assume to be Cristobal. Suddenly, through the magic of home video editing software, she turns into a flock of a thousand butterflies. In the opera’s final moments, a stock-still digital cutout of Florencia sprouts wings and flutters onto the grinning Cristobal’s outstretched palm, like something out of a cheesy music video.
The cast were undeterred, giving excellent performances throughout. In the title role, Elizabeth Caballero was at times stunning, singing with beautiful passion in the three generous arias that Catán gives her character. The finest of all was the last, when she communes in rapture with the spirit of Cristobal, who we must assume is dead, reaching soaring, Tosca-like heights which she managed with a full, open sound, and gorgeous, long phrases.
The young couple of the company are Arcadio, the captain’s nephew, and Rosalba, a devoted admirer writing a biography of Florencia. Won Whi Choi, just on the dark side of a lyric tenor, and Sarah Beckham-Turner, a comfortable soprano with an ever-so-slightly hard edge, were charming in their many duets, working themselves cautiously but inexorably towards unfettered romance.
An older couple serve as their inspiration: Alvaro and Paula, played by the oaky baritone Luis Ledesma and Lisa Chavez, a mezzo with a smooth lyrical technique and simmering tone. They quarrel constantly, including a very amusing episode involving a dish of fried iguana that ends with their wedding rings going over the side, but ultimately reconcile–with a little magical help, of course.
As the amiable captain of the El Dorado, Kevin Thompson showed a gruff but pleasing bass. Bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos sang with authority, bringing full body and rich, earthy sound to the role of the deckhand Riolobo, who doubles as a spirit of the river (in an unfortunate butterfly costume). And under the direction of Dean Williamson, the NYCO orchestra gave their best performance since the re-launch, sounding, nuanced, colorful, and secure, some iffy intonation notwithstanding.
NYCO’s offerings in the 2015-16 season have been somewhat hit or miss, but this Florencia is more than the sum of its flawed parts, and a clear mark in the win column, If this is to be the standard of the company’s work going forward, the future may be very bright indeed.
Florencia en el Amazonas will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. nycopera.org