Review: Magical Realism of Daniel Catan's FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS Spellbinds Audience in Met Debut

Lush Mary Zimmerman Production, Designed by Riccardo Hernandez, Headlines Ailyn Perez and First-Rate Cast

By: Nov. 18, 2023
Review: Magical Realism of Daniel Catan's FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS Spellbinds Audience in Met Debut

Just as the Met’s debut of Mexican composer Daniel Catan’s FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS (FLORENCE IN THE AMAZON) began the other day, a member of the audience yelled out “Viva la ópera en español!” (“Long live opera in Spanish!”). And that was before a single note of the composer’s lyric, highly accessible and heavy-on-the-Puccini score was played.

In searching for new audiences, it’s no secret that the Met has left some of its old-timers behind, scratching their heads, with works like DEAD MAN WALKING and X. So it must have been a relief when Catan’s FLORENCIA—the company’s first full-length opera in Spanish, with its libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain—began on a TURANDOT-ish note. The story goes on to incorporate magical realism—Fuentes-Berain studied with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the “king” of magical realismpainting a view of the world that adds fantastic elements obscuring the lines between what exists and what doesn’t.

The production by theatre professional Mary Zimmerman was for me her most successful at the Met, capturing the Amazon Basin and the strangers making their way to the opera house in the middle of the jungle for various reasons. The setting by Riccardo Hernandez with projections by S. Katy Tucker and lighting by T.J. Gerckens was lush and the magical figures—dancers, choreographed by Alex Sanchez, and costumed by Ana Kuzmanic as fish and floating flora, puppeteers as monkeys and alligators—were, indeed, fascinating.

Yet, I wish I could say that it worked better for me as a whole. True, the score was easy on the ear, but didn’t really go anywhere, though it had some lovely stops along the way, thanks to the best efforts of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Met Orchestra. The Met’s chorus, under Donald Palumbo, had its grand moments as well.

And, alas, as they say on Broadway, it has “book trouble”: The story, an original by the librettist, alludes to other tales that “skirt the border between drama and fantasy,” incorporating “a fluidity of time, place, emotion and even of identity.” Despite the fact that, ostensibly, it should be about the name of the title, Florencia (though she’s referred to by her surname, Grimaldi), she often fades into the background, especially since she’s supposed to go unrecognized even though she’s a major star. Nonetheless, the audience was along for the ride and appeared to have a good time.

As the opera diva supposedly on her way to perform at the opera in the jungle, Manaus, Florencia is really looking for her lost love, a butterfly hunter named Cristobal, whom we never meet. Soprano Ailyn Perez, in the title role, often sounded potent and carried off the glamor as well as the magical realism part (especially the devastatingly beautiful ending, with her transmogrification into a butterfly), but it took her a while to warm up to it.

The focus was divided between two other couples, with the budding romance of a journalist Rosalba (wonderful mezzo Gabriella Reyes) and the ship-captain’s nephew, Arcadio (the soaring tenor Mario Chang) narrowly outpacing the bickering older couple Paula (the excellent mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and her husband Alvaro (the fine baritone Michael Chiodi) for center stage. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger, a last-minute substitute as the captain, stepped in without a hitch.

The virile baritone, Mattia Olivieri, made an attention-getting debut as Riolobo, a mystical character assuming many forms and roles.

FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS will be performed at the Met through December 14, including the Saturday matinee on December 9 that will be shown worldwide in the Met’s Live in HD series. For more information, see the Met’s website.

Ailyn Perez as Florencia

Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera