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Florencia en el Amazonas

A passionate reverie of an opera that veered into fantasy with breathtaking ease.

Elizabeth Caballero, Kevin Thompson, Lisa Chavez, Luis Ledesma, and Sarah Beckham-Turner in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Elizabeth Caballero, Kevin Thompson, Lisa Chavez, Luis Ledesma, and Sarah Beckham-Turner in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

The New York City Opera is, thankfully, back in full force with the New York premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán (music) and Marcela Fuentes-Berain (libretto) in a production directed by John Hoomes, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.

Florencia is a passionate reverie of an opera written in the mode of Magical Realism so popular with mid-century Latin American novelists.  Reality veers into fantasy with breathtaking ease.

The opera is a surreal ode to the many facets and mysteries of love:  love that inspires; love that bridges social classes; love that is obsessive; and even love that can bring back the dead.  Florencia takes place in the early 1900’s on a creaky steamship floating up the Amazon en route to the opera house in Manaus, carrying a crew of three—the four-square Capitán (Kevin Thompson, bass), his eager-to-learn young nephew Arcadio (Won Whi Choi, tenor) and a mysterious helper, the hulking Riolobo (Philip Cokorinos, bass-baritone)—and four passengers on four desperate personal quests.

Middle-aged married couple, Paula (Lisa Chavez, mezzo-soprano) and Alvaro (Luis Ledesma, baritone), are constantly bickering over the most ridiculous things and hope that this trip will somehow change them.  (It does in a most miraculous way!)

Rosalba (Sarah Beckham-Turner, soprano) is an eager young journalist/biographer who is writing a mostly made-up book about the world-renowned opera star Florencia Grimaldi whom she has never met.  She pins her hopes on seeing her perform in Manaus and interviewing her for her book.  She is all work and no play, even after meeting the ardent Arcadio. That she finally will let her hair down—figuratively and literally—is a foregone conclusion.

Elizabeth Caballero as Florenciain a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Elizabeth Caballero as Florenciain a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

The final passenger is Florencia herself (Elizabeth Caballero, soprano) who boards the El Dorado incognito.  She, of course, is heading to sing at the opera house, but her real mission is to find the long-lost love of her life, Cristóbal Ribeiro da Silva (seen only in flashback videos).  She parted with him after a passionate affair:  he went off to search for a rare butterfly and she to rise to the highest echelons of opera fame.

Florencia is basically a series of set pieces—solos and duets—separated by long, lusciously colorful instrumental sections which evoke the sounds and sights of the Amazon: birds, bees, water lapping, a gigantic storm and the movement of the stars.

This production had two brilliant design/directoral conceits that worked hand in glove with the musical elements to tell the story.  The first involved twelve dancers from Ballet Hispanico’s BHdos all in white body suits from head to toe, undulating virtually continuously down stage in front of the ship, representing the river and its secrets.  With indefatigably choreographed by Nicholas Villeneuve and breathtakingly lit by Barry Steele, they, indeed, became a living part of the scenery, even interacting with the characters on the ship.

The second element was Mr. Steele’s exquisite videos of the Amazon, so vibrant and rich that it was easy to put oneself on the El Dorado and feel the heat and beauty of Brazil.  Whoever shot the constantly flowing images of this vast river (Mr. Steele?) did a miraculous job.  The video backdrop also helped when the opera veered into fantasy, showing characters floating and morphing into butterflies and stars and glimpses into the long-ago heated love affair between Florencia and Cristóbal.

Cara Schneider’s scenery placed the action within a colorful false proscenium decorated with period postcards.  Ildikó Debreczeni’s costumes were period and character perfect.

Elizabeth Caballero as Florencia in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Elizabeth Caballero as Florencia in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Hoomes, the artistic director of the Nashville Opera, where this production originated, chose a languid approach, which unfortunately emphasized the discontinuity between the long vocal set pieces which were in the style of Puccini or Samuel Barber at his most lyrical and the orchestral moments which had suggestions of Villa Lobos and Debussy.  The libretto was a bit melodramatic and florid, but suited the over-heated subject matter and the period.

The cast were all fine with Ms. Caballero gaining strength as the opera progressed, singing a searing final, triumphant aria with emotion pouring out.  Ms. Beckham-Turner’s character was written to open up as love caught her in its trap.  Her duets with Mr. Choi were convincingly lyrical paeans to their deep feelings.  Mr. Choi slyly matured as his character took control over both the ship and Ms. Beckham-Turner and he basked in the pride of his uncle the Captain and Rosalba’s acquiescence.  As the Capitán, Kevin Thompson’s sheer physical and vocal size was compelling.

The bickering couple’s music was angular and sharp, but when Alvaro was thrown overboard in a storm, Ms. Chavez’s Paula let her despair color her singing, gaining lyrical strength when he is miraculously returned to her from the depths of the Amazon.  Mr. Ledesma was a strong, quiet presence who suffered his marital woes, expressed in painful asides, with grace.  His return was cheered as much for his character’s resurrection as for his own calm charisma.

The oddest character, Riolobo—a man/sprite—was tough to communicate, especially since Mr. Cokorinos had to appear in a bizarre and unflattering butterfly getup floating above the undulating dancers.  His big voice and burly body succeeded in keeping the character grounded.

Dean Williamson conducted the NYCO Orchestra brilliantly to bring out all the colorful orchestrations which included steel drums, a raft of Latin percussion instruments and vivid use of the wind instruments to imitate nature sounds.

Florencia en el Amazonas (June 22-26, 2016)

New York City Opera

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater

Frederick P. Rose Hall

Broadway at 6oth Street, Time Warner Center, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.jazz.org

For more information, visit http://www.nycopera.com

Running time:  two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (192 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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