Florencia En El Amazonas
Los Angeles Review by Willard Manus

A ship of fools floats down the magical, mysterious Amazon river in Daniel Catan’s 1996 opera, now revived by Los Angeles Opera. Catan and Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s libretto was inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Love in a Time of Cholera, an icon of the magical realism school. Thanks to S. Katy Tucker’s psychedelic projections and Catan’s ravishing score–plus much inspired singing–FLORENCIA delights the eye and ear from start to finish.
On the ship, the El Dorado, a 28-foot-high construct by Robert Israel which could turn this way and that on its 42-foot axis, a captain, five passengers and Riolobo, a Prospero-like narrator (and spirit of the Amazon), steam toward Manaus where a long-shuttered opera house is to be reopened. The star of the production, Florencia Grimaldi (Veronica Villaroel), is traveling incognito aboard the El Dorado. Her trip down the Amazon has a special reason: to seek out her long-lost lover Cristobal, who disappeared in the jungle while hunting for exotic butterflies.
Love haunts the other passengers as well. Rosalba (the soprano Lisette Oropesa), a young writer working on a biography of the diva Florencia, falls for the Captain’s nephew Arcadio (Arturo Chacon-Cruz), but because of their conflicted feelings about commitment they never truly connect. As for the middle-aged married couple, Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins, the flame of their passion has died down to a cold flicker.
A storm figures largely in the first act of this mystical tale: the captain (David Pittsinger) faints and the youthful Arcadio must take the wheel. Wedding rings (in a wine bottle) are washed overboard and Riolobo proclaims his fear that the Gods of the river are out to destroy them.
In the second act, things brighten up a bit. Florencia, in an impassioned aria, swears that she will search for her love forever. Alvaro, thought drowned by the storm, reappears and credits the voice of love for having saved him. The much-relieved Riolobo (wolf of the river, in English) gives thanks to the Gods for having spared them.
There’s no happy ending, though. As they near Manaus and get ready to disembark, dead bodies float by them (seven dancers represent the corpses) and a realization hits home: the city is suffering from a cholera epidemic. The El Dorado, unable to dock, must keep on chugging down the river. Florencia, in a heart-breaking last aria, addresses her lost lover thusly: “I know that you hear me in life or in death. If you were not listening, my song would cease.”
There are many other equally touching and lovely arias in FLORENCIA as well as much memorable music. Catan’s debts to Ravel and Debussy are obvious–not to speak of Puccini in the arias–but he brings a lot of his own lush, gorgeous orchestral writing to the table.
With Grant Gershon’s expressive conducting and the cast’s lusty vocalizing, L.A. Opera’s revival of FLORENCIA was a major triumph.
(Through Dec. 20 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 213-972-8001 or laopera.org)