IU Opera Theater tackles a contemporary opera

Peter Jacobi

Over the years, Indiana University’s Opera Theater has given us a rich sampling of contemporary operas, the most recent having been Jake Heggie’s powerful “Dead Man Walking,” just last season. This week, we’re to get another, “Florencia en el Amazonas” (“Florencia in the Amazon”). It is the work of Daniel Catan, a Mexican composer who was driven to make the Spanish language a servant to operas yet to be written.

He wrote a few of his own in Spanish before death took him in 2011 at a too-early age of 62. Consequently, Catan did not live long enough to see a tradition formed, but in “Florencia,” he left us an opera that, according to critics and others who have seen it, works and makes a strong case for opera in the beautiful Spanish language. “Florencia” premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996 and was highly lauded by the press, not only in Houston but when co-commissioning opera companies took their turns producing it, Los Angeles in 1997 and Seattle in 1998. There have been plenty more performances since, including a number at universities: Michigan State and the Universities of Houston, Maryland, Illinois and Boston.

Now, it comes our way in a brand new production designed by Mark Smith, who serves as director of paint and props for IU Opera Theater; clothed by Linda Pisano, director of costume design at IU Theater; musically led by David Neely, head of Des Moines Metro Opera and conductor of last year’s impressive IU production of “Dead Man Walking”; stage directed by Candace Evans, widely acclaimed for not only her directing skills but as choreographer. I’ve not seen the opera but have listened to its music on CD; it impressed me for the lushness of the score, its accessibility, and how the music seems to closely fit the story.

The story, in brief, tells of a passage on the Amazon by a steamer. Aboard is, most prominently, an aging opera singer, a diva named Florencia Grimaldi, who has spent the last 20 years in Europe and now plans to give a concert at the opera house in Manaus, deep in the jungle (one that actually exists). The trip becomes a voyage of self-discovery for each of the characters. Florencia, in addition to singing her return concert, hopes to find her lo ver of long ago, of all things a butterfly hunter. Action takes place on the riverboat, named El Dorado, and off. You must wait to see what happens.

Each member of the production team claims to love Catan’s “Florencia,” it music, its story, its libretto, its theatrical potency.

Designer Mark Smith says the ship built for this production is, itself, a character, “an extension of its aging captain, who is in charge of navigating the dangers of the river, but it is also a character of its own, not only scenery. Many other productions have them traveling on a polished luxury vessel, but we agreed that didn’t fit the setting or the music. This is 1910, deep in the Amazon. We were drawn more to the romanticized stories found in film and fiction of unpleasant river journeys full of love, danger, and the unknown. Our El Dorado has the faded beauty of a once elegant craft.

“With what we settled on,” Smith continues, “there are elements of realism at the center of the stage picture, but as they depart for their destination and move deeper into the jungle, the river and surroundings take on a fantastic and slightly surreal environment suggested by the colors, textures, and creatures found in the Amazon.”

Director Candace Evans adds that the river itself is a character. “It changes everyone,” she explains. “What Mark has evocatively built for us makes possible an atmosphere that suggests movement. The river, as we show it and as the music and story line make clear, is the force of nature that changes the people making the trip. They’re caught by the emotional force of the Amazon, the spell it casts. Importantly, we have to create the blend of magic and reality through the actors’ interaction with this strange environment. Catan’s music, of course, promotes the spell. It is absolutely beautiful, exquisite, intriguing.

“We’re working very hard with the singers,” says Evans, “asking them to know the music and what it is meant to say. I need them, also, to think why they’re singing the music, what the music is dramatically all about. And another lesson deals with how to listen. The singers we have here understand those requirements, and they have the will and talent to make it happen. It’s always a joy to be here.”

Conductor David Neely says the opera is new to him but that he’s had his eyes on it for a while. “For me, ‘Florencia’ works on all levels and captures the magical-realist spirit of Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Great opera begins with a great libretto that understands the language and the pacing necessary for the music, as it expresses the words and what is happening on stage. in this case what Marquez’ assistant, the writer Marcela Fuentes-Berain created. The compelling text incorporates elements from across Marquez’ works and proves perfect for the operatic stage. People can relate to the imaginative story, characters, and music. It’s no accident that the opera has rapidly grown in popularity since its premiere.”

Expanding his discussion of the music, Maestro Neely says, “Catan wrote in a sweeping style that combines beautiful vocal writing, impressionistic orchestration, Wagnerian-style leitmotivs, Latin-American popular music, and naturalistic effects to place us in the dense and mysterious Amazon. He created a lush and layered musical dream state of great beauty that is pleasing to the ear and soul. Conducting ‘Florencia’ feels a bit like flying, and that is what I hope the audience feels, too.”

I’ll be waiting to sail and soar.

© Herald Times Online

  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Comments are closed.