A mystical and lushly romantic journey down the Amazon River is only the beginning of the fully absorbing and richly textured production of the current offering of the Washington National Opera (WNO), Florencia in the Amazon. This intriguing and somewhat rarified opera encompasses the search for a lost love as embodied in the character of Florencia (American Soprano Christine Goerke) and subplots involving various other characters who alternately bicker, cajole, and caress each other via the sublime music of Composer Daniel Catan and the alternately moving and quixotic libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain.
Inspired by the writings of the renowned writer of magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all the stellar vocalizing and dramatic interplay of this quite contemporary operatic jewel (premiered in Houston on October 25, 1996) fuse together under the insightful and innovative Direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.
Zambello’s acute eye and ear for this highly original work pay off beautifully for Zambello was the original director of the premiere. This opera has such a poetic, subtle and mysterious quality in Catan’s moving music and Fuentes-Berain’s somewhat complex and highly elegiac libretto. Zambello has assembled a sublime cast of accomplished opera performers that have the requisite vocal and dramatic skills to render the appropriate balance of realism to this hallucinatory visionary quest for love and transcendence.
Portraying the anguished and world-weary opera star traveling down the Amazon in a quest to escape the demands of fame and reconnect with her lost lover, Cristobal, American soprano and world-renowned diva Christine Goerke is breathtaking. Goerke commands the stage with dramatic complexity as she realizes that there are no easy answers or conclusions in the vagaries of life and love. Bravos and loud applause shot through the Opera House after every aria she sung and her aria at the finale of the opera broke down the fourth wall of the stage and became one of those rare moments of sublime immersion that opera aficionados cherish. Goerke vocalizes with superb vocal control and earthy, resonant chest tones —she thrillingly holds out final notes with a sense of yearning that swell with a soaring resonance that enthralls.
The Captain of the ship tries to soothe the passengers of his ship and, indeed, the bass-baritone of David Pittsinger, possesses the requisite authority and steadiness that the role requires. His nephew, Arcadio (Patrick O’Halloran) is a standout with his beautiful tenor especially when paired with his scenes together with the young writer, Rosalba, who is writing a biography of Florencia. As Rosalba, American soprano Andrea Carroll sings with a stunning purity and clarity of tone that conveys all the myriad complexities of love.
Against this backdrop of love, a somewhat more caustic and bickering presentation of love and all its permutations is portrayed with deft timing and incisiveness by Spanish mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera as the volatile Paula and American baritone Michael Todd Simpson as the temperamental Alvaro. American baritone Norman Garrett sings with passion and an arresting audacity as the muse of the Amazon who connects the audience to the spiritual and natural life of the Amazon River and its wildlife.
Abetting the tone of connection to the exotic and phantasmagorical world of this exquisitely uncommon opera are a group of five marvelously lithe and agile dancers. These wonderful dancers are a credit to Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel and they consist of Durell Comedy, Alison Mixon, Christopher Pennix, Matthew Steffens, and Ricardo Zayas.
The exotic otherworldly feel of this very special opera is aided by all the top-notch technical components. Set Designer Robert Israel designs a marvel of construction in his ship complete with raised platforms, ramps, passageways and —-especially—-the ability to swivel at will (just as a ship would glide along the water). Lighting Designer Mark McCullough and Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker blanket the stage with fiery reds and oranges during apocalyptic storm scenes and utilize tranquil blues during more serene moments. Costume Designer Catherine Zuber (winner of several Tony Awards) has designed crisp and sharply-etched costumes of classic appeal with distinctive edginess and vivid color.
Last, but certainly NOT least, the superlative Washington National Opera Orchestra (under the superior conducting of Chinese American conductor Carolyn Kuan) embodies solid musical heft, vigor, and nuance throughout the proceedings.
The Washington National Opera should be commended for presenting this unique opera as its 2014-2015 season opener. By the end of this glorious opera, one cannot help but retain what the heroine muses as she realizes her memories will always keep her lover alive in her heart: “Love is not a prison but an immense sea”.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.
Performed in Spanish with English subtitles. Soprano Melody Moore plays Florencia at the September 24, 2014 performance.
Florencia in the Amazon plays though September 28, 2014 at Washington National Opera performing in the Kennedy Center Opera House -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or 1-800-444-1324, or purchase them online.
A synopsis of Florencia in the Amazon.