Love is transformative, but in Florencia en el Amazonas, it's not in the way you'd expect. Daniel Catán's two-act opera, produced by the Houston Grand Opera and co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera, follows the journey of a group of passengers on a steamboat going down the titular South American river. The libretto is in Spanish and written by Marcelo Fuentes-Berain, and pays homage to the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, who pioneered magical realism.
The magic of this production lays in the visuals, which were minimal in concept but brilliantly executed. How does one show a steamboat journey on a static stage? Through a mesmerizing video projection created by S. Katy Tucker, which transformed the empty stage from sun-bathed riverbank to thickly verdant jungle foliage to the endless open water as the story unfolded, all with the aid of iridescent colors by lighting designer Mark McCullough. The steamboat was center stage, and it moved as well, rotating throughout the story to spotlight different rooms and decks, allowing for efficient scene changes and also generating a constantly shifting vantage point for the audience.
In some ways, the visuals drove the unfolding narrative more than the libretto itself, which is essentially three love stories: Florencia Grimaldi, the famed opera singer who is traveling incognito, hoping to find her long-lost love and butterfly hunter, Cristobal; the bickering married couple, Paula and Alvaro, who are woefully out-of-love and seeking to rekindle their relationship by seeing Grimaldi sing in person; and the blossoming romance between Rosalba, a young writer and avid Grimaldi fan, and Arcadio, the captain's nephew. Director Francesca Zambello adeptly balances the overtly romantic components of the opera with a realism that brings out its complexity, and the production is just stylized enough, effectively mirroring the luxuriance of Catán's soundscape without overwhelming it.
Unfortunately, the orchestra failed to find this balance, and the accompaniment often threatened to swallow the soloists. I think Catán's score was more at fault here than the musicians or conductor Patrick Summers: Catán's writing is neo-Romantic and thickly orchestrated, with swells that are almost cinematic in nature, and I often found myself straining to hear at pivotal moments. Because of this, the most arresting moments were the ones where the orchestra faded into a sparse backdrop, as in Paula's aria where she realizes she wants to be at Alvaro's side forever, masterfully sung by Nancy Fabiola Herrera.
Ana Maria Martinez was at her very best in the title role: Her solos as Florencia were rapturous and impassioned, and her middle range gorgeously colored and rich, with soaring high notes that never bordered on strain. There was a naturalness to her acting that carried the emotion of the character without exaggeration. Soprano Alicia Gianna played Rosalba with an earnestness and warmth, with pearly clarity and sweetness in her voice that balanced Martinez's more full-bodied one. As Rosalba's lover Arcadio, tenor Joshua Guerrero delivered his solos with energy and a ringing depth, and bass Norman Garrett played Riolobo, the part-human, part-magical character, with satisfying resonance and a sprightly charm.
The dancers, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, floated in and out of the scenes, acting as river spirits who sweep away both objects and humans into their currents. They were the most overtly fantastical element to the opera, which was otherwise quite rooted in reality. HGO’s production successfully marries magic and realism in Florencia in a way that’s true to its essence, and the final scene at Manaus is jarring exactly because it's not what we expect. If the story is about traveling to a destination, we really never get there, but there’s been another journey all along.
Thru Feb. 3. Tickets from $35. Wortham Center, 510 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.