BWW Reviews: Indulge in the Fantasy with Washington National Opera's Beautiful FLORENCIA IN THE AMAZON

By: Sep. 23, 2014
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The enchanted journey we embark upon with Washington National Opera's season opener Florencia in the Amazon is a production filled with beauty and a timeless truth. Ultimately though, what makes this opera so remarkable and this production so successful is that the search for fulfillment experienced by the characters is not unlike those we undertake on an everyday basis.

Florencia in the Amazon was inspired by the novelist Gabriel García Márquez, best known for employing magical realism into his stories. This involved inserting an element of fantasy into common occurrences, such as traveling on a river - which just so happens to be the setting for this opera.

The passengers and crew board the El Dorado riverboat to Manaus for one reason: to see the return engagement of the diva Florencia Grimaldi (Christine Goerke). Each hopes that her voice will provide redemptive guidance against the challenges they face in life. Grimaldi has slipped onboard the El Dorado unbeknownst to her fellow travelers. Despite the fame she bitterly resents, she's eager to return to Manaus in search of Cristobal, the lover who inspired her voice.

This production is magnificent in how Daniel Catán's lush melodic score, Marcela Fuentes-Berain's emotionally honest libretto and Francesca Zambello's astute staging infuse elements of magical realism into the lives and desires of those who travel onboard the El Dorado. Catán's score is the perfect embodiment of the magical realism so prominently featured in Márquez's novels. Under the expert guise of Conductor Carolyn Kaun, making an impressive WNO début, Catán's works provides the rhythm for the El Dorado as it steams down the mighty Amazon River.

Fuentes-Berain's libretto is equally successful. Her lyrics perfectly capture each character's longing for fulfillment. On several occasions the characters become a bit metaphorical. However that doesn't stop us from recognizing that their desires to be loved, to be free and to be at peace are familiar to each of us. That familiarity makes the surrealistic events they encounter all the more powerful.

Goerke is superb. Her beautiful soprano voice perfectly captures the resentment of fame and search for the lost love that fills Florencia's soul. Many times throughout the evening Goerke's Florencia can be found in a transient state, striving with a heartbroken determination to connect with Cristobal's spirit. This is Goerke's first performance at the WNO since 2008 and we hope she won't wait another six years to return.

Norman Garrett's performance best symbolizes magical realism in Florencia in the Amazon. He's the opera's narrator and mysterious God of the River Ríolobo. His rich baritone conveys the commanding mercy he seeks from nature when the El Dorado runs into a rare storm that threatens the ship in a moment of imaginative high-flying visual theatrics. It is in this scene, more than any other, that we get to fully appreciate and experience the elements of fantasy which populated Márquez's novels.

Soprano Andrea Carroll and Tenor Patrick O'Halloran make a wonderful onstage pairing as Rosalba, the author seeking to meet Florencia, and Arcadio, the captain's nephew seeking freedom beyond the boat. Together, both wander the El Dorado trying to discern what it is they truly want. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Baritone Michael Todd Simpson are fantastic as the endlessly bickering couple Paula and Alvaro. Their straight approach to the couple's disagreements provides the opera with some of its humorous moments.

Zambello has a long and established relationship with Florencia in the Amazon having developed and staged its 1996 Houston world première. From the opening dock scene, it's clear that this piece is a labor of love for her. Each movement is meticulously well-thought out and the fantasy sequences are used for maximum dramatic effect. The El Dorado is further enhanced by Zambello's staging of Robert Israel's rotating set at various angles.

The simplicity of Israel's largely rectangular bare white set for the El Dorado smartly retains the focus on the conflicts facing each character. S. Katy Tucker's projections and Mark McCullough's lighting design create the mysterious atmosphere of the Amazon's dense natural surroundings.

The production though is not without its flaws. Sadly, David Pittsinger's considerable talents are wasted portraying the Captain. It's not his fault as the role is entirely two-dimensional. The Captain is written as being content, whereas his passengers are not. They have conflicts to overcome, and because he doesn't, the role seems to lack purpose.

The representation of nature by six principal dancers fails to convey the natural elements encountered by the El Dorado. Additionally, Catherine Zuber's colorful native-inspired costumes which are meant to represent the various tribes along the Amazon are a miscalculation. The costuming is the wrong choice because nature, not the tribes, inhabits the story.

Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent the opera from embodying the characteristics of Márquez's stories or the delivery of a timeless message brought about by the El Dorado's fantastical journey. Zambello's marvelous production asks us to suspend realism and indulge in a story that wonderfully blends elements of nature and fantasy.

Performed in Spanish with English subtitles.

Run time is two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Washington National Opera's Florencia in the Amazon plays thru September 28th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, call (202) 416-8000 or purchase them online.

Please note: The role of Florencia will be performed by Melody Moore at the September 24th performance.

Photo: The full company of Washington National Opera's Florencia in the Amazon at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Credit: Scott Suchman.