The Metropolitan Opera is presenting its first Spanish-language opera in almost 100 years: Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán, with a libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The opera premiered in 1996 at the Houston Grand Opera and has been performed internationally.
Daniel Catán’s luxuriant, romantic score abounds in Puccinian undercurrents; one hears thematic echoes of Turandot and La rondine, with touches of the mysterious, otherworldly musical colors from Le Villi.
Ailyn Pérez as Florencia in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas – Metropolitan Opera / Photo: Ken Howard
The last time a Spanish libretto graced the stage of the Met was in 1926, with Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve. There is much pleasure to be drawn from hearing an entire opera sung in Spanish. Like Italian, Spanish is a melodious, singable language. It molds itself to Catán’s music, radiating sonorities that glisten in distinctive colors and a certain fervent sensuality and immediacy. Language is its own character here, a character that connects to the audience in a visceral, and for many, also a familiar way, beyond roles and identities. It isn’t the same as with the operatic Italian, that, at least in the repertoire staples, is an outdated language wrapped in perfumes of the past. In Florencia’s libretto, Marcela Fuentes-Berain brings us a poetic and accessible Spanish inspired by the magical realism of her teacher, the Nobel prize-winning author, Gabriel García Márquez and his novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Among Sunday’s audience members, there was a noticeable reaction of awe and relatability to that language finally resounding again on the stage of one of the greatest opera houses in the world. Spanish reverberated through the opera house during the intermission as well, in conversations about the performance.
The plot of Florencia en el Amazonas is mystical and romantic. Love, mystery, magic, and danger interlace together and carry the passengers of the steamship El Dorado down the Amazon River to Manaus in Brazil where the famous opera diva, Florencia Grimaldi is slated to perform. Little do the passengers know that Florencia is one of them. No one recognizes her on the ship, not, at first, even her most ardent fan, Rosalba, a journalist who is writing a book about the diva and plans to interview her in Manaus. Love is both catalyst and consequence in this river voyage that sees Rosalba fall in love with the captain’s nephew, Arcadio, and leads a bickering couple, Paula and Álvaro, to reaffirm their love for each other as Nature and the Supernatural combine forces to rattle and strand the ship and its passengers’ lives. As for Florencia, it is love that guides her. She is in search of her long-lost lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who had disappeared into the jungle years ago. Florencia’s tormented, regret-filled quest also unveils her own realization that her fame has been empty, that Cristóbal’s love was the true source of her singing, and that the choice she’d made to pursue her career has come at an agonizing cost.
Gabriella Reyes as Rosalba and Mario Chang as Arcadio in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas – Metropolitan Opera / Photo: Ken Howard
As Florencia, Ailyn Pérez expresses that torment on torrents of lavish, smooth, plush sound with translucent and breathtaking high notes. Her final aria before her ultimate transformation, “Escúchame”, is a heart-shredding passionate plea to love and to the spirit of Cristóbal, which Pérez delivers movingly, overwhelmingly, tinged with emotional inflections in shimmering cascades of sound. In the role of Rosalba, Gabriella Reyes, soars with the orchestra on the crystalline waves of her voice creating a strong character, credible and touching in her struggle between asserting her independence as a single writer and the love offered to her by Arcadio, sung by Mario Chang. Chang’s luminous and substantive tenor voice adds depth and passion to Arcadio’s own inner conflict and penetrating dreaminess to his yearning to become a pilot.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas – Metropolitan Opera / Photo: Ken Howard
As the bickering couple Paula and Álvaro, Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Michael Chioldi complement each other well, in both their sharp arguments and reassertion of their love for each other. Herrera’s warm mezzo is convincing in sorrow over her presumed-dead husband. Chioldi’s impressive baritone beautifully expresses a range of emotions from anger to love, through versatility of tonal colors and attention to the language. David Pittsinger, who replaced Greer Grimsley on Sunday, sounds both imposing and wistful as El Dorado’s captain. The half-mythical, half-human character Riolobo is sung by Mattia Olivieri with resonant and thrilling authority as well as compassion for the passengers’ plight and earnest reverence in his invocation of the Amazon goddesses.
Mary Zimmerman’s production exerts a visual spell through the painted images of the jungle and the use of puppets and dancers to portray shiny, colorful fish, pink water lilies, an alligator, an iguana meant to be a meal, and more. The only aspect that falls short of being an effective visual tactic is the pink confetti standing in for rain during the storm that strands the ship. The black coffins pulled by crows with yellow flags down the Amazon, announcing the outbreak of cholera in Manaus, are a chilling sight. And the white veil that covers the ship and Florencia, as she turns pulling the veil around her, makes for a powerful visual symbol of the metaphorical cocoon she has been spinning around herself before her transformation into a butterfly.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra regale the audience with vibrant and opulent playing, sometimes overpowering the singers but only because the score’s expression of unbridled outbursts of passion, longing, and indomitable forces of nature are not meant to be contained or tamed. Maestro Nézet-Séguin, in his navigation of these musical powers, often succeeds in creating an ideal balance by playing with dynamics. Not an easy feat in an opera that aims to transmit so much within so many layers all at once: orchestral, vocal, and literary. The balancing of the three here proves an act of intensity, boldness, and flexibility, and the result can be immense artistic and emotional reward. Which it absolutely was.
Top: Mattia Olivieri as Riolobo in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas – Metropolitan Opera / Photo: Ken Howard
Florencia en el Amazonas runs at the Metropolitan Opera through December 14.