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Verónica Villarroel  as Florencia Grimaldi [Photo by Craig T. Mathew /LA Opera]
28 Nov 2014

Florencia in el Amazonas Makes Triumphant Return to LA

On November 22, 2014, Los Angeles Opera staged Francesca Zambello’s updated version of Florencia in el Amazonas.

Florencia in el Amazonas Makes Triumphant Return to LA

A review by Maria Nockin

Above: Verónica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi [Photo by Craig T. Mathew /LA Opera]


The production made a strong impression on members of the audience as they entered the theater. On the curtain was a scene showing the Amazon and its surrounding jungle. In projections by S. Katy Tucker, fish were seen swimming in the river while flocks of tropical birds and swarms of multicolored butterflies periodically flew between the trees.

Florencia in el Amazonas is a contemporary opera by Daniel Catán (1949-2011) that was first seen at Houston Grand Opera on October 25, 1996. The libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain has some elements of Gabriel García Márquez’s style of magic realism but the story is her creation. The first Spanish-language opera to be staged by major United States opera companies, Florencia was commissioned for Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. It was last performed in Los Angeles in 1997. Houston revived it in 2001. Since then, there has been a performance somewhere in the western world every year or two. Restaged by original stage director, Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera performed it most successfully last September and it will be at Nashville Opera early next year.

On November 22, 2014, Los Angeles Opera staged Zambello’s updated version. The production made a strong impression on members of the audience as they entered the theater. On the curtain was a scene showing the Amazon and its surrounding jungle. In projections by S. Katy Tucker, fish were seen swimming in the river while flocks of tropical birds and swarms of multicolored butterflies periodically flew between the trees.
All the scenery was animated!

With the lyricism of Catan’s melodic score, the story's magic realism came to life as Robert Israel’s stark but functional ship began its trip. Although his neo-romantic vocal lines are somewhat related to the music of early twentieth century Italian composers, Catan’s atmospheric orchestration is uniquely his own. Best of all, his music pleases the twenty-first century opera audience. Florencia calls to mind the natural beauty of the Amazon, especially the way conductor Grant Gershon pealed back layer after layer of the translucent score to expose its gorgeous sonorities. I wish Gershon had been a little more careful of his smaller voiced singers, but his rendition of the accompaniment was one of the best aspects of the evening.

Set in the early twentieth century, an older couple, Paula and Álvaro, Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Gordon Hawkins, needed to breathe some new life into their marriage. Herrera had a great deal of color in her dramatic-timbred voice and it came through the orchestration with creamy tones. Hawkins sang with a stentorian sound as he tried to make peace with her. New lovers, Rosalba and Arcadio, Lisette Oropesa and Arturo Chacón-Cruz, began to realize that their love could be real. Oropesa sang with spinning silvery tones that rang to the rafters, while Chacón-Cruz’s top notes oozed power and virility.

Verónica Villarroel was a strong voiced Florencia Grimaldi. She lived the part of the famous opera singer as she traveled with them towards the legendary opera house in the Brazilian rain forest city of Manaus. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger was an efficient ship's captain. Dancers realizing Eric Sean Fogel's balletic choreography symbolized the river’s mystical creatures. When a storm stopped the ship’s progress, river spirit Riolobo, sung by energetic baritone José Carbó, pleaded with the river gods. I have wanted to see this opera ever since I reviewed the recording many years ago. On Saturday evening, both my eyes and my ears were delighted by the performance. I would love to see it again and I hope my readers around the world will get that chance.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Riolobo, José Carbó; Rosalba, Lisette Oropesa; Paula, Nancy Fabiola Herrera; Alvaro, Gordon Hawkins; The Captain, David Pittsinger; Florencia Grimaldi, Verónica Villaroel; Arcadio, Arturo Chacón-Cruz; Conductor and Chorus Director, Grant Gershon; Director, Francesca Zambello; Scenery Designer, Robert Israel; Costume Designer, Catherine Zuber; Lighting Designer, Mark McCullough; Projection Designer, S. Katy Tucker; Choreographer, Eric Sean Fogel.

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