NEW YORK — Just before the downbeat of the Metropolitan Opera premiere Nov. 16 of Florencia en el Amazonas, someone shouted, “¡Viva la ópera en español!” The audience reacted with cheers and applause, reflecting excitement over the house premiere of the first Spanish-language opera introduced to the Met in nearly a century. At the end of the two-and-a-quarter-hour performance, the audience roared its approval even more loudly.
Premiered in 1996 at Houston Grand Opera, composer Daniel Catán and librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s opera is not exactly new, but it joins a body of more recent work the Met has begun adding to the standard 18th- and 19th-century operas in the hopes of attracting new audiences. After launching the 2023-24 season with Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2002) and following up with Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1985), Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas opened during the season’s third month. With the coming revivals of the recent Met productions of Kevin Puts’ The Hours (2022) and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019) and the upcoming house debut of John Adams’ El Niño (2000), fully a third of this season consists of (relatively) recent repertoire. Despite plenty of grumbling on online opera forums, the shift to more modern works has brought plenty of fresh faces to the house, though whether the gambit will boost ticket sales remains in question.
Florencia en el Amazonas has already seen dozens of productions, mostly in the U.S. Mexican-born composer Catán studied philosophy in the U.K. before moving on to Princeton University, where he studied composition with Milton Babbitt. He remained in the U.S., writing and teaching as well as composing; Florencia is the third of his five completed operas, all with Spanish-language libretti. The work is the only opera libretto written by Mexico City-based Fuentes-Berain, who studied with the magic realist novelist Gabriel García Márquez. But she has written many scripts for film and television, and her experience with writing dialogue was apparent. Her fanciful website reveals a sensibility well suited to the Met’s imaginative production.
In her sixth production for the Met, director Mary Zimmerman again shows a light touch with the supernatural elements that marked her previous stagings, most recently Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice. The stage was defined with two curved green walls representing the banks of the Amazon, tracing an asymmetrical curving space. The flat stage becomes the deck of the steamer El Dorado, thanks to wheel-mounted curved balustrades constantly being rearranged by deckhands, along with minimal furniture and props for the different scenes. Translations were projected onto the jungle walls, and subtle lighting conveyed both the passage of time and the shifting density of the forest. The passengers on the El Dorado were elegantly costumed for 1913, while off the deck brightly gowned dancers glided about wielding props or puppets representing fleets of bright blossoms or schools of exotic fish. The colorful surprises are a constant delight. (Sets are by Riccardo Hernández, costumes by Ana Kuzmanić, lighting by T.J. Gerckens, projections by S. Katy Tucker, and choreography by Alex Sanchez.)
Florencia may be relatively contemporary, but its lush score and romantic themes are unabashedly retro. Fuentes-Berain’s mellifluous libretto, inspired by though not taken directly from García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a diva’s incognito voyage to perform in her homeland and to look for her long-lost love, a butterfly hunter whose devotion she had sacrificed for her career. While little happens to vary the long steamboat journey to Manaus, other than a storm and a last-minute cholera outbreak, the passengers traveling to hear the diva perform explore their hearts, aided by the wise ship captain and the enigmatic, shape-shifting Riolobo. Magical elements — strange creatures, odd coincidences, unlikely reversals of fortune — transform the river voyage into a journey of mystery, enchantment, self-discovery, and melancholy.
The music itself might be compared to an exotic garden. Short, lush orchestral passages, with coloristic elements reminiscent of Debussy or Strauss, announce a mood and are repeated several times as the soloists sing recitative-like lines that hover over the orchestra like butterflies above exotic flowers. For lyrical solos and duets, the orchestra provides more transparent support, reminiscent of Puccini. The vocal writing is generous, allowing the voices to soar in verismo ecstasy, although never quite providing a memorable melody. During the instrumental interludes that bridge the scenes, more disjointed, dissonant sonorities suggest the unknown dangers lying beyond the ship’s deck. Catán’s music provides the non-specific support of a film score.
The fine cast featured several Spanish-speaking Latino-American singers. Gabriella Reyes brought a fresh soprano and effervescent presence to the role of Rosalba, a young journalist and fan who hopes to interview the diva. Mario Chang, playing Arcadio, the Captain’s rebellious nephew, had youthful tenor energy, gleaming high notes, and especially nice chemistry with Rosalba, even while resisting his attraction to her. Michael Chioldi and Nancy Fabiola Herrera were well cast as the squabbling older couple, and they sang quite beautifully, sounding younger than their characters. In his Met debut, Italian baritone Mattia Olivieri cut a fine figure as Riolobo — narrator, deckhand, priest, shaman. He’s a talented rising Verdi baritone to watch. Jumping in for the ailing Greer Grimsley, David Pittsinger was a steady presence as the captain whose insights nudged his passengers to discover their better selves.
As Florencia Grimaldi, Ailyn Pérez embodied the reclusive diva with great charm and presence. Her lyric soprano is a bit light for the orchestration, but her lovely voice has focus and luster, and her vulnerability drew a listener in. Pérez communicated the diva’s unusual quality of receptive stillness as well as her passion.
Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin brought out the score’s exquisite colors, although sometimes at the expense of the singers’ audibility.
With its seductive musical language and romantic story line, Florencia stands squarely outside the mainstream of contemporary opera. In productions across the country and around the world, the work has proved its popularity with audiences. I call it one of opera’s guilty pleasures, like La Rondine and Fedora, especially in a production as gorgeous and well cast as this one.
Florencia en el Amazonas continues through Dec. 14. For tickets, go here.