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Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]
23 Jun 2016

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

A review by Alexis Rodda

Above: Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]


The new New York City Opera, the namesake of which has been revived by a new board of directors and Michael Capasso, the former director of the now-defunct DiCapo Opera, stands in the shadow of its previously glorious past. In its first performance under the weighty name of “New York City Opera,” the company produced a widely-panned Tosca in a display of sentimentality and homage to the New York City Opera’s first production in 1944. Their new season announcement, featuring a diverse array of unusual and interesting operatic selections, seems to suggest that this new New York City Opera is prepared to differentiate itself from its former glory days of the past, and from the hulking giant of the Met across the plaza in Lincoln Center.

The NYCO premiered its new season with Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas . This Spanish-language opera follows the adventures of two couples: the youthful and confused Rosalba and Arcadio, who meet by chance aboard the steamboat El Dorado, and the embittered Paula and Alvaro, who have chosen this trip down the Amazon River as a last-ditch effort to save their failing marriage. In the forefront is the tragic Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer who abandoned her youthful love to pursue artistic greatness and fame.

This is an unusual and intrepid production. Use of mixed media and video projections create an interesting juxtaposition between the performative and the representative, usually successfully. The music itself is glorious and easy on the ear, complex and Straussian in its long, meandering musical ideas but Puccini-esque in its musical illustration of emotions. The orchestra, led by conductor Dean Williamson, is impeccable, creating a complex array of beautiful musical shadings while emphasizing a color palette unusual to the “standard” operatic repertoire, such as dramatically poignant soundings of the steel drum.

Unfortunately, either due to the acoustics of the space or the enthusiasm of the orchestra, the balance between the orchestra and singers was irritatingly off, with the singers either blending completely into the orchestral texture or sometimes becoming simply inaudible. Those with larger voices or more natural squillo fared better, but all the singers became a backdrop to the wash of orchestral sound.

However, not all was lost, and many of the singers fared well despite the acoustic challenges. Won Whi Choi (Arcadio) is an absolute standout singer, with an effortless upper range and a gorgeously rich and smooth tenor voice. His youthful hesitance worked well for the portrayal of the innocent-minded Arcadio. Opposite him, the excellent Sarah Beckham-Turner held her own with a rich middle voice and easy upper range.

The production features a dance corps of dancers clad in white body suits, who, with their endlessly fluid movements, represent the moods and ebbs of the Amazon River. With the regularity that each character refers to the Amazon as living, breathing entity, this was an ingenious touch that literally brought the river to life. The dancers were at times playful like water nymphs, and at other times, menacing, as they invaded the playing space of the singers and grabbed beloved objects or even people from the safety of the ship’s deck.

The inclusion of the dancers, though invaluable, narrowed the playing space of the singers, and often the scenes became rather flat and linear. The stakes felt too low most of the time, with the text and music expressing drama that didn’t seem inherent in the singers’ bodies or physical actions, perhaps due to the physical limitations of the reduced stage area.

The one singer who broke from this stiffness was Lisa Chavez, who gives one of the most compelling performances of the evening. With a rich, healthy mezzo voice, she brings the most three-dimensionality to her character, and her second act aria is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the opera. Luis Ledesma, playing her husband Alvaro, brings humor and charisma in addition to a well-rounded baritone voice to his role. The chemistry between these two and the commitment of both Chavez’s and Ledesma’s performances make the story of this failing marriage the most interesting thread of drama in the opera.

Elizabeth Caballero , singing the title character of Florencia, has a bit of a shaky start, with some breathiness in the upper range and cautious phrasing, but by the second act has completely come into her own. Her second act shows the true blossom of her voice, while her committed emotionality brings a depth of sadness to this opera star who has chosen fame above love.

Kevin Thompson , with a huge baritone voice as the Capitán, and Philip Cokorinos in a likeable, sympathetic portrayal of Riolobo, round out the excellent cast. Cokorinos has a rather stunning vocal display at the end of Act I, with an ominous, gloriously sung cry to the Amazon’s River gods. The costuming choice for Riolobo at this moment—a purple body suit with blue wings, representative of the butterflies that Florencia’s lover was so fond of hunting—rather detracts from the gravitas of the moment, but Cokorinos delivers an outstanding performance in spite of this.

All of the singers play out this drama against a large digital screen which shows various video reels, ranging from realistic scenery of the Amazon River to fantastical images representative of the subconscious. The video was well-executed—in fact, better-executed than most productions I’ve seen that have utilized this form of technology—but the images were inconsistent, ranging from beautiful and well-conceived to downright laughable at the most inappropriate of moments. The Amazonian scenery and the blurring of realism to fantasy are done very well. However, the scenes of “flashbacks” between Florencia and her lover are awkward and border on silly, eliciting giggles from the audience at the solemnest of moments. The final scene in which Florencia experiences her metamorphosis into a butterfly grows increasingly beautiful as the colorful images of butterfly wings are blurred on the digital screen. However, in the final moments of the opera, a ridiculously rendered image of Florencia as a literal butterfly flying into the outstretched palm of a larger-than-life still image of her grinning lover Cristobal ruin the opera’s otherwise beautiful final moments.

Still, this production is to be commended for taking the risk of using digital media in live performance. It does it mostly successfully, and that, combined with the wonderful use of the river dancers, creates an evening of music that certainly isn’t boring. This well-rendered music, combined with the strong cast and bold production choices, is reason enough to spend an evening with the New York City Opera.

Alexis Rodda

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