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Sirens & Undertow of Florencia in the Amazon

WNO Florencia in the Amazon 4 Sm1.jpg

If you are a Puccini fan, the siren's call awaits with Washington National Opera's new co-production of Florencia in the Amazon.

On September 22, 2014, the Dresser experienced composer Daniel Catán's opera with the poetic Spanish-language libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The Dresser thought she would have to lash herself to her seat or risk being sucked into the lush projections showing Henri Rousseau-like jungles that surprisingly came alive with flying things--birds and butterflies--and, oh, there, in the corner, a shy monkey.

Under the baton of Carolyn Kuan, Catán's shimmering music, while lyrically accessible and sweet, maintains a fever pitch that caused the sirens-singing effect, particularly in act one of this two-act opera with a run time just over two hours including one intermission.

Inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, especially his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera, narrated by magic realism character named Riolobo (river wolf) concerns the steamship El Dorado traveling down the Amazon River from Leticia to Manaus in anticipation of a performance by the renown diva Florencia Grimaldi. Florencia, who is traveling incognito on the El Dorado, plans to reopen the Manaus opera house.

Most of the characters in this opera are struggling with how to love, including Florencia (sung as a diva should sing with volume and emotion by American Soprano Christine Goerke). After a 20 year hiatus, the opera singer is drawn back to her native country by the memory of a former lover, a butterfly hunter named Christóbal.

The production, directed anew by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello--Zambello was the creating director for the Houston Opera world premiere in 2003--is co-produced by LA Opera and San Francisco Opera. It has one set--the steamboat that is periodically revolved to show front, back, and sides. What provides scenic variety are projections (like a storm-filled or sunrise skies), deeply colorful lighting, and the river spirits, a company of accomplished artful dancers.

The Dresser offers this list of favorites from Florencia in the Amazon:

This line--"Love was made up by God on his birthday."

The performance of American tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Aracdio, the seasick nephew of The Captain. (Arcadio's dream is to pilot the boat.)
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The story detail that jettison's the young writer Rosalba's notebook into the river and which Aracdio retrieves with the cooperation of the River Spirits who tease first by tossing around the precious notebook. The notebook contains Rosalba's made-up history about the famous opera star Florencia Grimaldi. Rosalba doesn't know Florencia is on the boat but talks to the diva revealing her (Rosalba's) wish to interview this opera idol.

The sparkling rain that falls.

Least favorite element of the production is the costume for Riolobo (played by American baritone Norman Garrett) when he is lowered from the heavens as a mystical bird with spikey wings and pleads with the gods of the river "Do not destroy the world." The costume makes Riolobo look like he has come to destroy the world.

The Dresser provides Gary Stein's poem "The Undertow: Hatteras Island" as final words to this review. Stein's poetic narrator advises to "forget the ways we know" because the ocean's undertow somehow appeals to a deeper yearning for surrender. This is exactly what Zambello's fine new production requires--surrender to the poetic elements with the faith that the storms of love, body, and nature will not kill you.


And as many times as the ocean curls
itself into an arm and slams
me to shore scattering
memory like dice, I bob up, smiling
postcards and snake my body sideways
to the breakers for another throw.

Reason should prevail or the pain
of knees scraping the shore of all
its shells. But I am leaning out, letting
the undertow suck me down the beach,
laughing like pebbles in the foam.

You may say this idiot's dance,
this giddy, numb surrender to the moon
is what we face each morning--
snake eyes teasing with another chance.

It is not. We predict the ocean now.
If you gauge the tides, the wind, and chart
the bottom you can call a wave down
to the inch. But knowing doesn't ease
the ride, doesn't tell you how you'll
hit the sand or when to close your eyes.

Try to forget the ways we know. The undertow
is a kind of yearning. Pretend this poem
is a shell. It is a shell. Gather it
around your ear until you hear surf, faintly,
as far as the moon, but surf. Surf.
Each distant wave carries
further from the beach.

by Gary Stein
from Between Worlds

Copyright © 2014 Gary Stein

Photo credit: Scott Suchman


Comments (3)

Grace Cavalieri:

KARREN makes us fall passionately in love--
with Opera and Music and Language and Poetry Thank you

Beverly Kottwitz:

Karren has awakened my imagination with a collage of beautiful, romantic, lush images of soaring music and thrilling voices floating in an exotic jungle of poetic love. I yearn to experience this opera. Bravo, Karren!

Karren LaLonde Alenier Author Profile Page:


I'm surprised you haven't seen this one since it premiered at the Houston Opera. Didn't you say you worked there? Thanks for your comment!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 23, 2014 1:28 PM.

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