On Amazon River And In Old Ceylon, Lyric Operas Flow

Ana María Martínez takes the title role in Daniel Catán’s ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’ at Houston Grand Opera, which also staged the 1996 world premiere. Director Francesca Zambello tweaked her original concept with new projections. (Photos: Lynn Lane)
By William Albright

HOUSTON ‒ For its January pair of offerings, Houston Grand Opera went aquatic by reviving a work it premiered in 1996 that takes place on a South American river and mounting its first staging of an 1863 opera about Indian Ocean pearl divers.

I have a friend who loves opera but wishes that more recent ones indulged in long, soaring vocal lines. Well, Mexican composer Daniel Catán (1949‒2011) wrote enough of those in Florencia en el Amazonas, seen Jan. 20 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater, to fill a wishing well.

Arcadio (Joshua Guerrero) wakens the passion in Rosalba (Alicia Gianni).

The action takes place on an Amazon River steamboat in the early 1900s. It’s called El Dorado but might as well have been christened The Love Boat in honor of the protagonists’ efforts to experience or rekindle that most operatic of emotions.

The title character is a renowned opera singer who spurned love to pursue a career. Away from her native South America for 20 years, she is traveling to the Brazilian city of Manaus to reopen its shuttered opera house ‒ and also to find and thank her old beau. An entomologist who helped her talent blossom, he disappeared into the jungle in search of a rare species.

Florencia’s fellow passengers include Paula and Alvaro, a couple with a strained but ultimately rapt marriage; Rosalba, who wants to write a hagiography of Florencia; and Arcadio, a young sailor who longs for a more exciting life and who awakens Rosalba’s latent passion. Also on board are the unnamed captain (Arcadio’s philosophical uncle) and Riolobo, the all-knowing narrator as well as a mystical spirit of the river, who floats down from the sky on giant wings to quell a violent storm. There are also five dancers who play river sprites and friendly piranhas who return people and things to the boat when they go over the side.

Performed in Mexico City, Heidelberg, and many places around the U.S. since its 1996 debut, Florencia was commissioned by HGO, LA Opera, and Seattle Opera. It was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by major American companies. Robert Israel designed the boat, Catherine Zuber the costumes, Mark McCullough the lighting. Francesca Zambello directed HGO’s world premiere and the company’s 2001 revival, and for this outing she tweaked her original staging with new projections and video by S. Katy Tucker and choreography by Eric Sean Fogel.

Norman Garrett is Riolobo – the narrator and mystical spirit of the river.

The poetical Spanish-language libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain was inspired by the magical realism of her mentor, Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez (1927‒2014). Catán’s orchestral score lushly recalls Debussy, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Hollywood film scores. The characters pour out their hearts in arias, duets, and ensembles founded on expansive, arched lines. Only temporarily Cupid-resistant, Rosalba and Arcadio even sing a “Let’s not fall in love” duet that (shades of Bohème and Butterfly) climbs to high C. HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers, who led Florencia‘s previous Houston outings, oversaw a sinuous and powerfully hued reading that tended to submerge the singing into the rich orchestral stew. But the strong cast shone despite the decibels.

Ana María Martínez,  who sang the role Rosalba in 2001, touchingly brought out Florencia’s sadness and radiant longing with graceful acting and a handsome lyric soprano that could turn hard on the highest fortissimos but lofted some poised pianissimos. Fellow HGO Studio alumna Alicia Gianni made an endearingly awkward Rosalba and her soprano boasted a wonderfully rounded upper register, while new-to-the-company tenor Joshua Guerrero voiced Arcadio’s frustrations with clear-toned ardor. Also making solid HGO debuts were bass David Pittsinger as the Captain and Norman Garrett as Riolobo, playing the magical ringmaster with relaxed authority and singing with a robust baritone. As the bickering married couple, HGO newcomer Nancy Fabiola Herrera displayed a house-filling mezzo-soprano and current Studio member Thomas Glass deployed a resonant baritone.

Andrea Carroll as Leïla, apex of a love triangle in Bizet’s ‘Les Pêcheurs de perles.’

Les Pêcheurs de perles, dealing with pearl divers in ancient Ceylon, is a tune-filled work about two friends torn by love for a priestess of Brahma. In recent years it has enjoyed a popularity that eluded it for many decades after its 1863 premiere.

HGO’s first staging of Bizet’s opera made a big splash thanks to the colorful sets and costumes that British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who designed HGO’s 2007 Aida, created in 2004 for San Diego Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre. Seen here Jan. 25 in Brown Theater, the picture-book-style production has graced opera house stages throughout America and made it as far north as Montreal. The riot of vibrant yellows, reds, pinks, purples, and greens brought to mind the paintings of Romare Bearden, and the decorations on some massive columns suggested Keith Haring’s dancing stick figures. The stage picture was further enlivened by E. Loren Meeker’s direction and Mark McCullough’s lighting. There is oodles of dancing in the opera, and Eric Sean Fogel provided buoyantly balletic versions of Indian movement.

Zurga (Alexander Birch Elliott) and Nadir (Lawrence Brownlee) pledge friendship.

Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Roderick Cox is well versed in the symphonic repertoire. He has served as an associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and conducted as guest in Cleveland, Seattle, Santa Fe, the LA Phil,  and at the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal. But the 31-year-old, Berlin-based Cox was making his operatic debut here.

In general, he led the Jan. 25 performance with a satisfying balance of lyricism and zip. An economical maestro, he kept most of his gestures in the region of his shirtfront. I would have preferred a little more expansion or rubato here and there, but the music relaxed tellingly in key moments ‒ the famed tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” unfurled fluidly – and Cox conducted the many dances and choral passages crisply and gave the turbulent second-act finale plenty of tension and oomph.

Federico de Michelis portrays Nourabad, the high priest of Brahma.

Making his role debut and acting with ardor, tenor Lawrence Brownlee is a bel canto specialist, and so was unfazed by the high tessitura of Nadir’s music. Yet his secure but all-forte singing lacked the dreamily floated voix mixte that creates such magic in the aria “Je crois encore entendre” and the start of Nadir’s second-act forbidden-love duet with Leïla, at the close of which (because in ancient Ceylon there were no bodices to rip) he unwinds her sari.

In November, Alexander Birch Elliott made a Met debut replacing Mariusz Kwiecień as Zurga mid-performance when the Polish baritone became ill. In his HGO debut he replaced Kwiecień when the latter withdrew “due to personal circumstances.” Elliott gave a physically commanding but relentlessly stentorian performance that, like Brownlee’s, skimped on vocal refinements. But his strong, steady voice scored points in the heated duet in which Leïla pleads with the violently jealous Zurga for Nadir’s life after the treble-clef lovers are condemned to death for violating her vow of chastity.

HGO Studio alumna Andrea Carroll did the most stylish, accomplished, and rewarding singing of the evening. She acted with submissiveness or spunk as the drama required, and her bright lyric soprano was capable of considerable thrust. But she repeatedly tapered it to infuse Leïla’s music with beguiling softness and deftly traced the tripping coloratura passages in her prayer to Brahma.

Bass-baritone and fellow Studio graduate Federico De Michelis strode around authoritatively as Nourabad, the multicolor-robed high priest of Brahma, and delivered his baleful pronouncements with unforced sonority.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.