CATÁN: Florencia en Cincinnati (Performance Review)

Performance Review

Daniel Catán
Florencia en Cincinnati

Despite perennial hand-wringing about the hidebound operatic repertoire, new works continue to vie for acceptance in what is certainly the most elaborate and most extravagant of traditional musical genres, and the one with the constituency perhaps least receptive to new entrants into its repertoire. Yet enduring success is the expectation—or hope—of each new effort. My choice for the most likely candidate is the Spanish-language Florencia en el Amazonas, presented this past July by the Cincinnati Opera. The composer is Daniel , a 59-year-old Mexican-American, now living in California.

Completed in 1996, and premiered that year by the Houston Grand Opera, Florencia has been averaging approximately one new presentation per year since then—in Europe, Mexico, and South America, as well as in the United States. The work was revived in Houston by popular demand in 2001, which resulted in a recording on the Albany label that has become something of a “best-seller” (in contemporary opera terms) and has spread awareness of the work more widely. Two orchestral suites drawn from the opera have been performed by major orchestras. 

Audiences have responded to the work with great enthusiasm; critical response has been more muted, though generally favorable. The reasons for its remarkable success are clear enough: It has practically everything one might wish for in an opera—a virtually uninterrupted river of melody accessible enough for anyone who can handle Turandot; vocal writing with a clear connection to the bel canto tradition; impressionistic orchestration of shimmering, pulsating luminosity, enriched by exotic percussion, that sets up the voices the way a finely-wrought setting frames a precious jewel; a libretto cannily conceived so as to make the foregoing embarrassment of riches a natural outgrowth of the story; and an underlying existential statement that gives profound resonance to the superficially simple plot.

The story, elaborated with touches of the “magical realism” associated with the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, is set during the early 20th century, and concerns Florencia Grimaldi, an aging diva who is traveling incognito down the Amazon to return to her birthplace (and possibly to re-connect with the love of her youth whom she left behind). Also on the steamboat are a young female journalist who is writing a book about Florencia, whom she idolizes; she scorns the emotional dependency of love, until she meet the captain’s nephew—also searching for clues to his own destiny; a couple, long married, whose relationship has degenerated into incessant bickering, and who are searching for the romance that once ignited their marriage; and Riolobo, a magical spirit of the Amazon, who serves as a combination of Greek chorus and deus ex machina. 

But it is really a story about the tension between the authenticity of remaining connected to one’s roots and the drive to fulfill one’s potential through self-actualization, and the inevitable compromise that must follow. It is also about the compromise of autonomy in the search for intimate attachment; and it is about the struggle to keep romance alive in a relationship that endures over time.

What can be criticized about such an opera? Based on reviews and comments overheard during the intermission: Nothing really “happens;” the music owes too much to Puccini; it is not “modern” enough; it is not “Spanish” enough; there are too few melodies that one can walk out humming. But this is petty carping. Nothing much happens externally, because so much is happing to the characters internally. That the music owes much to Puccini and is not “modern”-sounding or Spanish-sounding may bother a few listeners, but will be a relief to most others. Not enough “tunes” to walk out singing? This is an opera—a continuous, coherent two-hour entity (in two acts), not a Broadway show. Having known the opera for some six years now, through the recording, I can aver that there are melodies, but they are long and take time to coalesce in one’s mind.

The Cincinnati production was fabulous: American soprano Alexandra Coku as Florencia was exquisite, capturing both the musical and emotional dimensions of the character with great poignancy. She has been on the scene for some twenty years now; why she is not better known I cannot explain. The other singers—Nmon Ford as Riolobo; Arturo Chacón-Cruz as the nephew; Carlos Archuleta and Emily Golden as the married couple—embodied their characters with musical artistry and dramatic sensitivity. Only the voice of Shana Blake Hill, in the important role of the young journalist, was marred by an unattractive edginess, but she sounded better as her voice warmed up during the course of the evening.

The orchestra played superbly under the direction of Steven Mercurio. The staging and lighting were brilliant and creative, giving an appropriately undulating motion to a set that could well have appeared quite static.

In the fall of 2009, Catán’s latest opera, Il Postino, will be presented in Los Angeles. One awaits the premiere with great eagerness.