HGO presents premiere of `Florencia'

by Lisa Chang and Jim Harper

Florencia en el Amazonas makes its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera with abundant grace and stunning beauty. The HGO shares this historic event as one of the three American companies who commissioned the work of Mexican composer Daniel Catan. Florencia en el Amazonas is the first Spanish opera produced by the HGO.

Florencia is a story of love in three stages: youthful passion, mature evolution and finally, fulfillment through giving oneself over to love. The heart of this opera is the Latin-American literary tool magical realism. The result of such a foundation is a world grounded in reality but shrouded in mysticism and a cast of characters with very real problems but very magical solutions.

The first stage of love is portrayed by Rosalba, a writer whose fervor for Florencia is matched only by her determination not to fall in love, and Arcadio, the nephew of the steamboat's captain who yearns to fly but is grounded by familial obligation. Witnessing the marriage between the couple, Paula and Alvaro, makes the two young lovers wary of giving into their feelings, for where there once was youthful passion there is now only distrust, cynicism and bitterness.

The four board the steamboat with the ultimate goal of hearing the great Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera diva whose private life is a mystery to her numerous fans.

For Rosalba, it is the culmination of years of work studying and writing about her idol. Paula and Alvaro hope that the magic of Florencia's voice will rekindle their romance. Unbeknownst to them, they are joined on their journey by the diva herself. Florencia hopes to be reunited with Cristobal, the lover she abandoned 20 years ago to pursue fame while he pursued one of the world's rarest butterflies, the Emerald Muse.

For these five, the journey down the river is not merely a physical one but more importantly an internal one, a journey of self-transformation guided by the spirit of the river, Riolobo. It is ultimately love that wins, as each of the couples gives into their love and in turn finds greatness through it.

This mystical world, reminiscent of Conrad's Heart of Darkness , is one where the river is truly alive, sometimes playful, other times morbid, and always powerful, where incantations and dance can sway the elements, and love knows no bounds, not even death.

To emphasize the magical realism, director Francesca Zambello creates a "nondescript world where things can change very quickly through light and color." And, indeed, upon first glance, the set appears to be simple, comprised mainly of gray and white colors and simple blocks.

The actual steamboat is a monolithic, gray-tone construct run by a smooth motor to navigate the boat through water and based on a hydraulic system which simulates the underlying currents and waves. It is a typical HGO set in that it is outwardly simplistic but in reality extremely complex, not only in construction but in implementation. The audience is drawn into the Amazon by incredibly creative lighting techniques, such as the use of different colors and materials to give the impression of foliage and shimmering water.

In contrast to many 20th century operas, Florencia seeks not to innovate but rather to use traditional techniques in an effective way. The score's Debussy-esque harmonies, coupled with a constant undercurrent of a pulsing, primal beat, ensure that the audience never feels stagnant in the water. In fact, it is quite the contrary; these elements are a constant reminder that we are on a journey, cruising along the Amazon River.

The composition, enhanced by the excellent conduction of Vjekoslav Sutej and flawless execution by the Houston Symphony, is such that the orchestra is never at odds with the singers and instead serves as the perfect complement, always moving but yet never distracting.

The singers themselves deliver excellent performances, balancing good technique with the intense, raw passion that Catan demands. Frank Hernandez, as Riolobo, gave an outstanding performance, skillfully managing the many facets of his character. Hernandez has a powerful baritone with a beautiful tone. This is enhanced by his effective portrayal of the strength, mysticism and occasional playfulness of the river.

Sheri Greenawald, as Florencia, relies more upon acting rather than vocal talent to create her powerfully emotional portrayal of the aging diva seeking reunion with her muse; her voice, while good, is not great. Greenawald makes this work for this role and in turn produces an ideal performance.

As for the rest of the cast, it seemed to take them the first scene or two to warm up to their respective characters, but by the end of the opera, each character had fully blossomed into dynamic, multi- dimensional people, with the possible exception of the Captain, whose role is severely limited by the libretto.

The outcome of their journey down the Amazon is on some levels predictable, yet on others it catches the audience completely unaware. The idea of the Emerald Muse is brought full circle, as Florencia, in perhaps the most enthralling aria of the opera, goes through a mystical metamorphosis that ultimately brings her closer to Cristobal, who is assumed to have died of the cholera.

The audience is left with this intensely beautiful image as reward for journeying with the company through this very passionate Latin American story. Florencia en el Amazonas truly does embody all that is romantic and awe-inspiring. Just as it mimics the transformation from caterpillar to the majestic butterfly, it promises evanescence.

If you're lucky, you'll be touched by the Emerald Muse before it flutters off.

This item appeared in the Arts & Entertainment section of the November 1, 1996 issue.

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