Reader beware. This is not a review for the opera cognoscenti whose weary ears may be seeking newer, less familiar fodder. You know who you are. This is a review for the reader who may be a touch tired of “Madame Butterfly” — allowing a few years between productions might add to her allure — but who enjoys the more familiar and hummable themes, the ones that haunt. Though composer Daniel Catán may think of himself as an acolyte of Puccini, as stressed in the LA Opera materials, “Florencia” is definitely late 20th century.
Billed as an homage to Gabriel García Márquez and his novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera," "Florencia en el Amazonas" only tangentially follows that story line; despite its inclusion of young vs. mature love, a husband dying from a fall, and cholera, it is a loose homage.
An Amazonian riverboat is tied up by a dock waiting to take passengers on board for a journey to Manaus where the reclusive soprano, Florencia Grimaldi (Verónica Villarroel) is scheduled to perform. On board is a long-married, long-bickering older couple, Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins), and a young author, Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa), who hopes to interview the reclusive diva. Rosalba's notebook (with all she has written about the great soprano) slips overboard and is rescued by the captain's nephew, Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz). Love is in the air, folks. While the other passengers are immersed in their own private worlds, Florencia slips onboard unseen. Her real motivation in undertaking this journey and billing is hopefully to find her lover of many years ago, a butterfly hunter, whom she forsook in order to pursue her career.
The simplified riverboat — rather like a 42-foot long architectural model, on which most of the action takes place — slips away from the dock and the chorus of natives on an animated river are all cleverly conceived by scenery designer, Robert Israel. Waves and piranhas are well portrayed by five dancers who are not credited in the program though their performance, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, is a cut above what generally passes for dance in an opera.
A storm interrupts the idyll. In the course of the storm, Alvaro falls overboard trying to push aside a log and presumably drowns. Paula forgets all her nagging and can only recall what she always did love about him. The young couple declare their love for one another and swear not to part. In the calm after the storm, Paula's lament becomes the voice of love that recalls Alvaro from the dead, while the young couple return to declarations of wanting independence and autonomy from each other. Florencia learns that her butterfly hunter is dead. When they reach Manaus, they all learn there is an epidemic of cholera and none can leave this ship of fools.
As opera stories go, it is not difficult to see the commonality between what is happening on stage and real-world relationships. Librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain captures the tiresome patterns of the older couple and the blind passion of the young. In fact, these are the highlights of the performance. Storms, real and figurative, can shake up a life. Sadly, Villarroel's soprano, while strong in Act II, lacks the nuance necessary to give her role credibility. Far more pleasing to listen to are Herrera, Hawkins, and Oropesa. Surprisingly, the able LA Opera orchestra, under Grant Gershon's baton, often overwhelms their voices.
This production is the second time "Florencia en la Amazonas" has been performed in Los Angeles. The LA Opera also presented another of Catán's three operas, "Il Postino", in 2010. The latter, in my opinion, was much more fulfilling. Despite “Florencia”'s very listenable orchestral score, including dollops of unexpected instruments such as a marimba, the overall production fails to engage me. Perhaps with repetition my verdict would change, but my level of interest would be unlikely to induce me to purchase the necessary ticket. I think I will leave this one to the cognoscenti.