Catán: Florencia En El Amazonas / Summers, Houston Opera

Catán: Florencia En El Amazonas / Summers, Houston Opera

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The plot: A small group of people are on a steamboat, sailing down the Amazon in the early 1900s to hear legendary opera singer Florencia Grimaldi (who has not apeared in her native South America for 20 years) at the re-opening of the opera house in Manaus. In fact, Florencia is one of the passengers, but she is disguised, yearning to rediscover her true self while searching for her long-lost lover, Cristobal, a butterfly hunter who disappeared into the jungle. The other passengers are a writer named Rosalba who is working on a biography of Florencia (but does not recognize her on board); Paula and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple who have lost interest in one another and are hoping that hearing Florencia will rekindle their romance; the ship's captain; his nephew Arcadio; and a mystical character named Riolobo. Along the way they survive a storm, and when they arrive at Manaus it is in the midst of a cholera epidemic and they are not permitted to disembark. Rosalba and Arcadio have fallen for one another, Paula and Alvaro are reconciled, and ultimately the journey proves both literal and metaphoric; the passengers are on a quest for love, fulfillment, the whole shebang.

Mexican composer Daniel Catán and his librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Barain, acknowledging a debt to the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have fashioned an opera out of what is called "magical realism". This shows up not only in the character of Riolobo, who appears as a "river spirit" in the midst of the storm and is otherwise shape-changing and mysterious, but in Florencia's final apotheosis: she somehow becomes both one with Cristobal and the essence of (or the actuality of) a butterfly. I know, I know--but strangely, it doesn't come across any more hoky than, say, Isolde's Liebestod.

Florencia is a beautifully crafted work. We immediately discover our characters' personalities through their music and words, whether it's Florencia's opening seven-minute monologue or Arcadio's beautiful, dreamy, pianissimo-filled aria in scene 4 in which he expresses his dream of being a pilot. And underneath it all is the inexorable movement of the sea shot through occasionally with the exotic rhythms of the samba; even if you don't know the libretto, you hear in the darkening orchestra when danger is nearing, when love is taking hold, when the unexplained is to be taken for granted.

There is a stunning ensemble in scene 8 in which all of our characters express their dreams; it is as well written as anything in the best of 19th-century opera. The spacey, enigmatic start to Act 2 and Florencia's song to the long-lost Cristobal are ravishing; the love duet for Rosalba and Arcadia that follows--complete with ringing, climactic high Cs--is properly ecstatic; Paula's warm feelings for Alvaro when she fears he's dead are clear and moving; and Riolobo's churning song of gratitude to the River Gods is filled with awe.

The music glistens like sun on the river; it is graceful and ravishing. And, in case you haven't figured it out, it's absolutely tonal. I'm certain that Catán will be criticized for being so traditional, but in the face of such exquisite music, music that drinks the listener in sensually, all I can say is "whatever!" I bought it hook, line, and sinker, including the redemption-through-love and journey-into-your-soul business--and so has everyone I've played it for. It's not an opera you can excerpt--it flows and flows, uninterrupted.

Patricia Schuman sings Florencia as if she believes every word, which I guess is a pre-requisite. Young tenor Chad Shelton's beautifully phrased and sung Arcadio makes you want to hear him in Mozart and Donizetti, Ana Maria Martinez sings Rosalba with innocence and love, our troubled-but-reconciled Paula and Alvaro are utterly believable in the mouths of Susanna Guzman and Hector Vasquez, and Oren Gradus' Captain is captain-like. Mark S. Doss' simply terrible Spanish enunciation as Riolobo only briefly adversely affects his reading of this difficult, cryptic role. Patrick Summers leads the entire affair in one big, flowing (there's that word again) piece, and the Houston Opera Orchestra and Chorus appear to love what they're doing. The sound is as lush and big as the jungle, but decidedly un-murky.

The opera was first performed in Houston in 1996; from there it traveled to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Bogotá before returning, to great popular and critical acclaim, to Houston in 2001, where and when this recording was taped. Search as I may for an outlet for my cynicism, I can't locate it; I'm too enchanted. This is a gorgeous, fascinating, familiar-yet-new experience, and I recommend it to everyone. [7/5/2003]
--Robert Levine,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: MOB053125

  • UPC: 034061053125

  • Label: Albany

  • Composer: Daniel Catán

  • Conductor: Patrick Summers

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Houston Grand Opera Chorus, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Ana Maria Martinez, Chad Shelton, Hector Vásquez, Mark S. Doss, Oren Gradus, Patricia Schuman, Suzanna Guzman