Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas: A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas:
A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Classical music has always led a precarious existence in the United States. With historical roots in European aristocracy, it has served as a symbol of wealth and prestige for those who aspire to the sociocultural elite. Yet those very roots have led it to be regarded warily and with some distaste by populists who have always represented the dominant American attitude toward the arts. This uneasiness has been especially strong in relation to opera, with its relatively small canon of classics usually performed in a European language, its “unnatural” manner of singing, and its idiosyncratic requirements for suspension of disbelief, especially regarding the importance of physical attributes in casting decisions, not to mention a host of quaint customs known only to initiates. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that for much of its European history, opera was actually a populist form of entertainment.

Opera’s vitality as a living art form is further threatened in America by the unfortunate fact that its active repertoire effectively closed with the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. Not that there has been any dearth of new operatic compositions since then, but few if any have made an enduring impact on the public, in spite of a virtually endless parade of experiments that have sought to invigorate the increasingly alien genre. In America, these experiments have included performing standard operas in English, incorporating elements of the popular musical theater or rock music into the genre, creating new works that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics, or, at the other extreme, applying to them the “advanced” musical techniques espoused by the intellectual avant-garde. More recent attempts have included using “pre-sold” subject matter, such as items from recent news events (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer), or popular movies (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Man Walking), the use of English “super-titles” to facilitate comprehension, even when the opera is performed in English, as well as commissioning librettos from established playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein and Terence McNally. Understandably, some of these efforts have generated considerable publicity, along with enthusiastic reactions from more receptive, open-minded opera-goers. But such enthusiasm is typically short-lived, as few such efforts have demonstrated real staying power.

One recent opera that seems capable of achieving more than ephemeral acclaim is Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, scheduled for a return engagement this February, after its sensational Seattle premiere in 1998. Florencia had been commissioned jointly by the opera companies of Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, who introduced it in 1996, 1997, and 1998 respectively. When Houston’s David Gockley initially approached composer Catán, he had specified not only that he wanted a work in Spanish (as a welcoming gesture to Houston’s growing Hispanic population), but also that it be “nothing less than the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years.” Completing the work in 1996, Catán seemed to take Gockley’s demand to heart, producing what San Antonio critic Mike Greenberg called, “a score that is unabashedly, soaringly lyrical, its impeccably flattering vocal lines displayed in an orchestral jewel case of Puccini harmonies and Debussy colors and textures.” Some critics, like Los Angeles’s Mark Swed, patronized its accessibility, calling it “an opera meant to please—it is comfortable for singers, comfortable to listen to; it at least will not displease audiences.” Indeed, audiences were ecstatic, with word-of-mouth evidently spreading to Seattle so that the 1998 production outsold the previous two. Since then, the plethora of follow-up productions is almost unheard of for a new work—especially a work intended specifically to be performed in a foreign language. It has also been produced by Opera de Colombia in Bogotá, Opera Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and in Manaus, Brazil, whose opera house actually figures in the fictional libretto. Houston Grand Opera reported it to be the largest-grossing premiere in the history of the company, and, in 2001 revived the work by popular demand, in a production that was released on commercial recording the following year. Catán arranged an orchestral suite of excerpts from the work, which was introduced by the Madison (WI) Symphony Orchestra in 2003. A semi-staged version was mounted in 2004 by Opera Nova of Los Angeles. And now the opera is returning to Seattle, where Director Speight Jenkins states, “We have never had a new work that engendered so many requests for revival.”

How is one to explain Florencia’s phenomenal success? With its unmistakably Italianate lyricism, the work may be described as “neo-romantic,” belonging to the category of new operas “that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics,” as noted earlier. But that in itself is not enough: There are plenty of neo-romantic operas that have not been welcomed so whole-heartedly by audiences. One factor that sets Florencia apart is the boldness with which it embraces its idiom, playing it to the hilt. Catán almost outdoes late Puccini in the shimmering, pulsating luminosity of his orchestration, creating a luxuriant cushion upon which the voices seem to float with an effortless sensuality. The orchestration is lent an exotic Amazonian touch by the subtle contributions of cow bells, a marimba, a steel drum, and a South American drum called a djembe. Catán’s vocal lines resemble Puccini’s in their fluid rhythms and the freedom with which they soar, in spontaneous, uninhibited expressions of emotion, in aria after aria, with little of the declamatory recitative that dominates most contemporary opera. Indeed, some critics have carped at Catán’s appropriation of a successful style from the past, calling it “derivative.” Los Angeles critic Alan Rich complained that “nothing [about it] would have shocked opera-goers a century ago.” 

But such cavils reveal a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between musical language and musical history: Composers do not copyright a “sound” reserved for them alone, nor is a particular style limited to a particular time period: A composer embraces a language that feels natural to him or her and well suited for conveying a certain type of feeling. Simply because a style emerged at a particular time doesn’t mean that style speaks only for and to that period. After all, if that were true, the classics of the past wouldn’t be as appealing today as they are. In Scene 3 of Florencia the Captain could be reflecting upon this very issue when he sings, “Things always move forward/In life, there is no going back/No one step is ever the same/no turn is ever a return.” But while many recent opera composers have adopted a lyrical style reminiscent of Italian opera, the results often seem apologetic and half-hearted. The music of Catán, on the other hand, is projected with full-throated conviction through long-breathed melodic lines. It is worth noting that when Florencia was revived in Los Angeles in 2004, Alan Rich acknowledged somewhat apologetically that his earlier comments had been “not particularly kind,” adding that this second look at the work “turned out not bad at all—rather more than that, in fact,” finally admitting, “All this turned out as stronger, shapelier music than I remembered.” Other critics have been less restrained. English opera specialist Graeme Kay wrote, “Catán deliberately set out to write ‘beautiful music’ and he certainly succeeded. The soaring melodic lines supporting the eminently singable Spanish libretto are of the most grateful kind for the singers, yet underscoring the music which one hesitates to call Pucciniesque (because Catán does have a distinctive voice) is an insistent and exotic rhythmic pulse—the ‘jungle’ music—in which the marimba is prominent. Catán successfully handles all the operatic building blocks—choruses, solo arias, duets, trios and ensembles … We will, I hope, hear and see a lot more from Daniel Catán.” Austin’s Michael Barnes opened his review by saying, “The tides have shifted in a favorable direction when the best thing about a late 20th-century opera is its music. The world premiere of “Florencia en el Amazonas” … will be remembered for Daniel Catán’s luxurious score, … “ and concluded that “it ought to enjoy a longer life than most late 20th-century operas.” While acknowledging the work’s embrace of a familiar musical language, Jerry Young, also from Austin, noted that “it somehow avoids seeming derivative or retro, and it certainly avoids the sort of righteous, calculated pandering one hears in works by so many business-minded neo-romantic composers…. The effort is terrifically daring in its modesty, making for beautiful vocal music that could make the most staid opera-goers change their minds about modern opera.” 

In addition to the ardent lyricism and rich, luxuriant orchestration of the music, there is the subject matter itself. Catán wanted to make his opera a homage to the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who had heard Catán’s previous opera, Rappaccini’s Daughter, in Mexico City. At that time the Nobel Prize-winning writer, associated with the Latin-American literary movement known as “magical realism,” had expressed interest in working with Catán. (“Magical Realism” refers to a kind of fantastic surrealism that permits symbolic, unconscious elements to interact with more naturalistic action.) As plans evolved, the composer decided to base his opera on thematic elements from García Márquez’s work Love in the Time of Cholera, which the author approved on the condition that his student Marcela Fuentes-Berain write the libretto. She and Catán worked together for several years, and Florencia was the result. The story is set in the early 20th century, and takes place on a steamboat traveling from Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, in the mysterious heart of the Amazon jungle. On the boat (but traveling incognito) is FlorenciaGrimaldi, a world-renowned operatic diva, who is returning to her native city to re-open the opera house there. Her journey represents much more than that, however: She is seeking her spiritual roots, her soul, and her lost passion, symbolized by Cristóbal, a butterfly-hunter, the embodiment of her romantic ideal, whom she left behind to pursue the glory of an operatic career. (The butterfly, with its suggestion of ephemeral beauty, is a favorite symbol of Catán’s.) Also on board is Rosalba, a young journalist, at work on a biography of the great singer without realizing she is a fellow-traveler; the Captain; Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew, who is searching restlessly for life’s meaning, until he and Rosalba fall in love; and Alvaro and Paula, a bickering middle-aged couple who hope that this romantic journey might help them to rekindle their passion. The remaining character is Riolobo, a supernatural river creature with multiple identities, who re-appears throughout the opera, sometimes as a commentator on the action, at others as a kind of magician who intervenes in the action, almost like a deus ex machina. The journey is obviously a symbolic one, a voyage into the exotic unknown, during the course of which the characters face external dangers, while delving deeply into their hearts, ultimately to achieve profound transformation with the realization that love is the source of life’s meaning, or, in Catán’s words, “Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other.”

Although the story itself seems relatively simple and straightforward, its propitiousness for operatic treatment is almost self-evident. If opera requires an especially generous suspension of disbelief, then an exotic setting and magical atmosphere evoke the inevitability of myth, awakening the audience’s receptiveness to a truth greater than reality, and creating a fertile backdrop for the development of allegory. Add to this a character like Florencia, herself an opera singer in search of a lost love, two romantic couples, one younger and one older, and you have an ideal and virtually endless opportunity for romantic arias and ensembles, filled with longing and ecstatic passion. As Catán has said, “What opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion…. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one—that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: … It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.”

Daniel Catán, a Sephardic Jew, was born in Mexico City in 1949. When he was 14 he went to England to study both music and philosophy. After receiving degrees in each subject, he came to the United States to pursue the study of composition at Princeton. There he earned a PhD in 1977, working under with Milton Babbitt, J.K. Randall, and Benjamin Boretz, the doyens of serialism during the 1960s and 70s, the most cerebral and audience-unfriendly of modernist approaches to musical composition. How did such appealing music result from such stringently anti-hedonistic tutelage? Catán explains that he found Babbitt and company to be less dogmatic than their reputations suggested, and relatively receptive to his own explorations. Furthermore, he adds, although his music may sound rooted in tonality, he attempts to apply to it the sort of abstract theoretical rigor that he learned as a student at Princeton. After receiving his degree, Catán returned to Mexico City, where he worked as a music administrator as well as a teacher. He admits that he reached compositional maturity rather slowly, spending many years on what he now considers “studies and exercises.” Most of the music that he considers “finished” and worthy of performance was written after he had passed the age of 40.

The success enjoyed by Florencia has been very gratifying to Catán. One peak experience was witnessing the production at the very Manaus Opera House that figures so significantly in the libretto. “It just felt, as I was listening to the opera in that theater, that life couldn’t get any better than this. It brought me everything I dreamt about and more. I felt like the happiest person in the world at that moment.” One observes with interest as opera-goers and CD-listeners continue to discover this still-very-new work. It is hard not to wonder whether Florencia en el Amazonas just might be the first opera from the turn of the 21st century that endures.

Florencia on Recording

In 2002 Albany Records released the previous year’s revival of Florencia en el Amazonas by the Houston Grand Opera on a commercially available recording. The cast features Patricia Schuman as Florencia, Mark S. Doss as Riolobo, Ana Maria Martinez as Rosalba, Chad Shelton as Arcadio, Susanna Guzmán as Paula, Hector Vasquez as Alvaro, and Oren Gradus as the Captain, all under the direction of Patrick Summers. Peter Kermani, the president of Albany Records, whose releases are largely limited to contemporary music, reports that relative to the company’s norm, Florencia must be considered a “best-seller.” It appeared on many critics’ “best-of-the-year” lists (including my own) and has elicited rapturous reviews from professionals as well as from “just plain folks” whose comments now appear on many websites. Following is a sampling of critical comments:
“On the operatic front, nothing has stayed near my player more than Daniel Catán’s brilliant Florencia …, an exuberant musical and dramatic journey that grips the listener from the first bar.” Tom DiNardo, Philadelphia Daily News, 12/19/03

“This is an opera that rings with romantic gusto and Puccini-inspired grandeur…. Catán proved why he is the great new hope for 21st century opera.” William Gregory, Great Lakes Den, 2003

“Catán’s remarkable consistency of inspiration, his melodic gift, and his orchestral craft all keep his music from being derivative, and instead make it gripping. Florencia may be a genuine masterpiece.” Henry Fogel, (Fanfare, Nov/Dec 2003)
“The music is intensely emotional in Catán’s sincerely adopted Puccinian approach … but there is also a touch of Korngold about this vibrantly lush and imaginative writing…. I detected no weak links among the cast. In particular Patricia Schuman is magnificent…. I must also praise the great Houston orchestra…. This is a potently Puccinian opera and is not to be missed by those thirsty for mystery, grandeur and emotional staying power.” Rob Barnett (Classical Music Web, 6/03)

Florencia is a beautifully crafted work…. There is a stunning ensemble in Scene 8 … as well written as anything in the best of 19th-century opera…. The music glistens like sun on the river; it is graceful and ravishing…. 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…. Patrica Schuman sings Florencia as if she believes every word, … The sound is as lush and big as the jungle, but decidedly unmurky…. 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.” Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com, 7/5/03)

Here are some consumer comments, found on Amazon.com:

“I saw this opera four times when it premiered in Los Angeles and loved every minute of it. I have been waiting years for a recording. Loved this recording!”

“I first discovered this opera during a car ride on a Saturday afternoon…. After I heard the title, I called a friend of mine who was in the process of calling me to tell me he thought I would love this new opera. Both of us were held captivated by this unusual music.”

Florencia … is, in a word, beautiful…. It comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure, unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace, voices entwine around each other like lovers, and not a line feels clumsy or out of place…. Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what’s wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia … stands as a hopeful reminder that love, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.”

“Buy this recording to familiarize yourself with the lush score and intriguing story. Then book a flight to Seattle for winter 2005 to see it.”

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in traditionalist approaches to contemporary music. A contributor to The New Grove, he is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism, and his reviews have been appearing regularly in Fanfare Magazine for almost 30 years. He is the author of Voices in the Wilderness (Scarecrow Press, 2004), a study of neo-romantic composers.

(c) Seattle Opera Magazine, Winter 2004/2005