A thrilling Florencia en al Amazonas at Lyric Opera of Chicago

United StatesUnited States Daniel Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Jordan de Souza (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 26.11.2021. (JLZ)

Ana María Martínez as Florencia © Cory Weaver

Director – Francesca Zambello
Sets – Peter J. Davison
Costumes – Catherine Zuber
Lighting – Mark McCullough
Projection – S. Katy Tucker
Choreographer – Eric Sean Fogel
Chorus master – Michael Black

Florencia – Ana María Martínez
Rosalba – Gabriella Reyes
Arcadio – Mario Rojas
Paula – Deborah Nansteel
Alvaro – Levi Hernandez
Riolobo – Ethan Vincent
Captain – Raymond Aceto

Excerpts from Daniel Catán’s 1996 opera, Florencia en el Amazonas, have been part of recitals by Ryan Opera Center members for several years, but the present season benefits from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first staging of the entire work in a production directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Jordan de Souza. The plot of Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s libretto takes its inspiration from the writing of Gabriel García Márquez; while it is not based on any single Márquez work, the plot resonates with the ending of Love in the Time of Cholera. It also echoes Lyric’s notable commission of Bel Canto, an opera with a diva at the heart of the story. The difference between the works lies in the music: Florencia is redolent of the richly romantic idiom that Catán uses to evoke the libretto’s magic realism.

In the role of Florencia Grimaldi, Ana María Martínez gave an appealing performance which is, perhaps, informed by her experience as Rosalba in the world premiere of the opera, and by her contact with the composer during his lifetime. Martinez’s interpretation made the diva come to life. The search for her long-lost lover, Cristóbal, at the core of this Amazon journey, emerged well in the duet with the Captain and, later, in her poignant reflection about the love that spurred her singing career. Martinez embodied her character so that the soliloquy at the beginning of Act II set up the soaring Finale in which she joins her lover spiritually in the rain forest: the two numbers comprised an antecedent and a consequence that brought the work to a satisfying conclusion. Throughout, Martinez conveyed a sense of ease and presented Florencia as an engaging, three-dimensional character whose experience of love transformed her completely.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Florencia en el Amazonas © Cory Weaver

Gabriella Reyes gave a nuanced performance as Rosalba, Florencia’s biographer, at times suggestive of a younger Florencia. Reyes’s clear soprano fit the role well, and it showed best in the Act II duet with Arcadio where they transform their mutual objections to a love affair into a commitment to each other. Later, when Rosalba discovers that she has been traveling the entire time with her idol, Florencia, the recognition emerged with vocal elegance. Reyes’s portrayal added to the evening’s success.

Ryan Opera Center alumnus Mario Rojas joined the cast in the role of Arcadio. Despite some pitch problems with the orchestra in his opening lines, Rojas warmed to the role during his exchange with the Captain, his uncle, about leaving the family business of managing boats on the Amazon. He also acted well, with his stage presence at the culmination of Act I crucial to that climactic scene. Yet it was in the second-act duet with Rosalba that the audience could really hear Rojas’s fine tenor.

Raymond Aceto was impressive as Arcadio’s uncle. His warm voice reinforced the role stylishly as he anchored the scenes in which he sang. One of the challenging roles in Florencia is Riolobo, and Ethan Vincent was convincing in a part that requires him to step in and out of scenes. His deft delivery was essential as he guided the singers and, with them, the audience, through the magic realism in the narrative. Vincent’s full voice allowed the text to be heard clearly when the orchestral scoring competed with the vocal content at the beginnings and ends of scenes.

In a very positive way, Deborah Nansteel and Levi Hernandez as Paula and Alvaro were entwined from the start, and they acted well together. The sometimes-acerbic lines between the two in the libretto were underscored with a musical continuity that made them inseparable, and made Nansteel’s lament for Alvaro full of the pathos implicit in the score. Nansteel’s polished performance stands out along with the others in this well-cast production.

Sets and lighting blended with projections that added subtleties to the overall presentation: the single set of a ship gave the impression of motion on the Amazon, and that is no small feat. The dancers who suggested the forces of the river contributed strongly to the stagecraft, as they moved easily around the ship under Zambello’s direction.

Jordan de Souza led the orchestra well. If at times they overbalanced the voices, the latter were always persuasive. De Souza’s direction was solid from the start, which is particularly important when a score is new to a house. The solid response at the end of the evening demonstrated his effectiveness in bringing Florencia en el Amazonas to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production that stands well with others in this season.

James L. Zychowicz

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