Review: Singing the most magical element in ‘Florencia’
In San Diego Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” there are rolling waves, a 42-foot spinning boat and 30-plus jungle creatures swimming, hopping and flying around the stage. But the most magical element of all in Daniel Catán’s magical-realism opera is the singing.
Soprano Elaine Alvarez is stunning in her role debut as Florencia, a world-famous but heartbroken opera singer returning to the wilds of her native Brazil to find her lost love. Her rich, supple voice glides and soars effortlessly through the florid, note-rich score and she acts the role with a sensitivity and emotional conviction normally seen only in veterans of a role.
And supporting her most impressively as the young lovers Rosalba and Arcadio are soprano María Fernanda Castillo and tenor Daniel Montenegro, whose large, crisp voices blend beautifully with Alvarez’s creamy sound.
The 1996 Spanish-language opera, which opened Saturday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, is based loosely on the magical-realism novels of Gabriel García Márquez. His protégée Marcela Fuentes-Berain wrote the libretto.
Catán’s well-orchestrated score is gorgeously filled with the colors of the Amazon. Under the nuanced conducting of Joseph Mechavich, you can hear the shimmering of the river water in the strings, the wind and the birds in the woodwinds, the rhythm of the paddleboat’s engines in the percussion and, very subtly, the soul of Latin America in the marimba and steel drums.
This is the first time “Florencia” has been produced by San Diego Opera, but there’s a familiarity to the sound of its arias and ensembles. It has the long vocal lines and catchy melodies of Puccini and the impressionistic imagination of Debussy. But it also has Verdi’s beautifully textured harmonies and his pared-down orchestration during Alvarez’s grand closing aria.
Stage directed and choreographed by Candace Evans, the opera takes place on a weathered steamboat heading to Florencia’s hometown of Manaus, where she’ll sing at the reopening of the city’s opera house after many years away in Europe. Secretly, she has come to find her lover Cristobal, an elusive butterfly collector who she abandoned for stardom.
On the boat, poignantly named El Dorado, are Rosalba, an aspiring novelist keen to interview Florencia; Arcadio, an aspiring pilot; estranged spouses Alvaro and Paula (Levi Hernandez and Adriana Zabala); and the ship’s gentle Capitán (Hector Vásquez).
Guiding them all on their journey of discovery is narrator and shape-shifter Riolobo, sung impressively and playfully by baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco. As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the passengers are seeking something they already possess, but it takes a fierce storm and Riolobo’s magic to realize it.
The jungle’s iguanas, orangutans, crocodiles, macaws, water spirits and even the deadly cholera awaiting the voyagers in Manaus are played by members of the San Diego Opera Chorus, directed by Bruce Stasyna.
Giving them colorful life are costumes, puppets, mobiles and props created by costume designer Linda Pisano. Many are illuminated creatively by lighting designer Todd Hensley. These magical-realism touches are enjoyable to watch, but Florencia’s metamorphosis finale, which should be spectacular, only disappoints.
While the lyricism of García Márquez’s language can be heard in “Florencia,” the fast-moving two-hour opera lacks the grand canvas of a novel. The characters’ stories feel truncated, Riolobo’s influence cries out for more backstory, the first act ends abruptly and Florencia floats through the story with virtually no interaction with the other passengers.
It’s one of those rare times when you wish an opera was longer so you could spend more time in Catán’s magical world.
“Florencia en el Amazonas”
When: 7 p.m. March 20 and March 23. 2 p.m. March 25.
Where: San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: $48 and up
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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