Eastman Opera Theatre presents its first Spanish-language work with ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’ 

click to enlarge The cast of "Florencia en el Amazonas," Eastman Opera Theatre's first Spanish-language production. - PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • The cast of "Florencia en el Amazonas," Eastman Opera Theatre's first Spanish-language production.
As languages go, the role of Spanish in classical music has almost always been relegated exclusively to the performance and study of guitar compositions. For all its open vowel sounds and inherent lyricism, Spanish never had a serious foothold in the world of opera.

Composer Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” changed that.

“It really put Spanish-language opera on the map,” said stage director Octavio Cardenas of the opera. “It is path-breaking, as the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by big opera houses.”

“Florencia en el Amazonas” has also been a box-office success. Since its 1996 premiere in Houston, the opera has been presented in Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C., Chicago, New York, and abroad in Germany. “Florencia” makes its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in November, but Rochester audiences will get to see it first when Eastman Opera Theatre produces the work in Rochester, March 30 through April 2.

Eastman’s “Florencia” breaks additional ground. It is the school’s first mainstage production of a Spanish-language opera, and it’s Cardenas’s debut as the new stage director of Eastman Opera Theatre.

Cardenas has directed the opera three times previously. “I think I am getting it right this time,” he joked.
click to enlarge "Florencia en el Amazonas" runs from Thursday, March 30 through Sunday, April 2 at Eastman Theatre's Kodak Hall. - PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • "Florencia en el Amazonas" runs from Thursday, March 30 through Sunday, April 2 at Eastman Theatre's Kodak Hall.
The opera’s action is confined to a steamboat on the Amazon in the early 1900s. The famed soprano Florencia Grimaldi is headed to Manaus to perform at its opera house. She also hopes to reunite with her lover Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter who vanished long ago in the Amazonian rainforest.

Florencia’s fellow travelers include a female journalist writing a book about the singer, a bickering married couple, and the boat captain’s nephew, who falls in love with the journalist. Arriving during a cholera epidemic, all are quarantined on board. Florencia’s chance of seeing Cristóbal again seems doomed, until she experiences a magical, but very appropriate transformation.

“It’s about love, and the journey to find it,” Cardenas said. “Florencia hopes to reunite with the great love of her life, a married couple are seen at a difficult time in their relationship, and two young people fall passionately in love.”
click to enlarge PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
As conceived by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, the opera’s characters were loosely written in the style of Gabriel García Márquez, a writer on the short-list of great twentieth-century novelists. The story was inspired by Márquez’s celebrated literary technique of “magical realism,” which Cardenas summed up as “creating an atmosphere in which anything can happen.”

For Cardenas, the opera is notable in its absence of “Latin” clichés. “None of the characters is stereotypical,” he explained. “And the music’s Latin sound is subtle — no dance rhythms or sound effects.”

Daniel Catán, who died in 2011, was a Mexican-American composer with a particular flair for opera. His rich, retro score for “Florencia en el Amazonas” will likely be irresistible to audiences who enjoy the operas of Puccini and Richard Strauss, the orchestral music of Debussy and Ravel, or the sumptuous Hollywood scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. “This music is definitely cinematic,” says music director Wilson Southerland.

For “Florencia,” Southerland conducts an orchestra of 40, an unusually large number of players for an opera. Four are percussionists, who play native drums, a Caribbean steel drum, chimes, a wind machine, an ever-present marimba, and other instruments. The orchestra creates a complete sound world as it evokes the mystery and violence of the river, the jungle, and tropical storms, the noise of the steamboat, and the passions of the characters.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
  • PHOTO BY NIC MINETOR
In this double-cast production, graduate students Amanda Hornig and Sofia Scattarreggia each play Florencia Grimaldi in alternating performances. As a character, Florencia exhibits an effective combination of flair and seriousness, said Scattarreggia. “Florencia has had a fabulous career, but she is shrouded in mystery,” she explained.

“From the beginning of rehearsals, Octavio was insistent that we play Florencia not as a great diva, but as the woman she really is, based on her love for Cristóbal,” Hornig said. “As she says repeatedly, ‘I am not only my name.’”

“Florencia en el Amazonas” has since become one of Hornig’s favorite operas. “Daniel Catán’s musical style is contemporary but it’s very emotionally powerful, Puccini-esque,” she said.

The production benefits from having a director and several cast members who are native Spanish speakers. Scattarreggia, who was born in Barcelona, hopes the combination of attractive music, a story by a revered Latin American author, and a libretto in Spanish will bring a new audience to Kodak Hall. “Spanish is now such a common language in this country, and this piece can bring opera to so many more people,” she explained.

Eastman Opera Theatre presents Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” March 30 through April 2 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. $20. For more information, visit eastmantheatre.org or call 585-274-3000.

David Raymond is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].
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