John Frayne: UI opera production of 'Florencia' a triumph

I attended the last of the four-performance run of Daniel Catan's opera "Florencia en el Amazonas" on Nov. 11, and I enjoyed the performance enormously.

First, Catan's music: His style harks back to Giacomo Puccini in the melodic lushness with which Catan evokes the wonder of the tropical riverscape of the Amazon and the strong passions of his characters.

Catan was indeed influenced by more recent composers such as Igor Stravinsky, but his music above all "sings" and avoids the aridities of much 20th century modernism.

The setting and the plot offer what might seem insurmoutable obstacles to a stage director and scenic designer.

A middle-aged opera diva, Florencia, in search of a lost love, Cristobal, voyages down the Amazon with a boatload of also questing souls, and must face storm and shipwreck as well as emotional crises.

The central set of the scenic design by Reuben Lucas is a riverboat, and this set could be rotated for specific situations. The visual triumph of the performance was when the boat, setting sail, rotated to face the audience and seemed to move toward us as the image of a mighty river receded on the screen at the rear of the stage. The audience rightly applauded this "coup de theatre."

My applause also goes to the projections designer Grant Bowen, as well as to lighting designer Robert Brown and sound designer Will Carlson. The technical staff as a whole also did wonders with the storm scene, the appearance of the Manaus Opera House, and the final transformation scene.

Stephen Fiol did a fine job directing the stage action, especially the opening departure scene with its milling crowds. The chorus, well prepared by Cara Chowning, sang enthusiastically here and elsewhere, and the costume designs by Jess Gersz captured skillfully the styles of 1925, the time of the opera.

The principal roles in this production were double cast. The cast I saw Sunday afternoon had many strong performances. The role of Florencia, the opera diva, had major arias that were sung with convincing skill and passion by Cristin Colvin.

Timothy Renner sang powerfully the challenging role of Riolobo, the ship's hand who also doubles as a praeternatural river spirit. Also admirable was the acting and singing of the other leads, Lindsay Eckhardt as Rosalba, the writer, eager to meet Florencia, and Benjamin Krumreig as Arcadio, a sailor who yearns to see the world and falls in love with Rosalba.

The quarreling couple, Paula and Alvaro, were credibly sung and acted by Bethany Stiles and Ricardo Sepulveda. Jorge Belonni as the ship's captain did very well as the emotional anchor to the cast in times of stress.

The principal singers in the Thursday-Saturday cast were Yaritza Zayas, JinUk Lee, Lee Steiner, Caitlin Powell, and Elizabeth Thompson.

The supertitles, translating the Spanish text, were coordinated by Dennis Helmrich, and worked to perfection on Sunday.

Catan's orchestral music not only resembles Puccini but also Richard Strauss, and Eduardo Diazmunoz conducted an impassioned reading of its splendors. Catan aims high at the end of this work.

When Florencia is transformed into a butterfly, this act is given music to resemble an apotheosis, evoking comparisons with the ending of Richard Wagner's "The Twilight of the Gods" or Richard Strauss' opera "Daphne." In scenic terms, the transformation is evoked with a gigantic image of a butterfly behind Florencia, and the diva's final flight as the butterfly sought by her lover Cristobal is supported by music similar to the end of Gustav Mahler's "The Song of the Earth."

This production of the Catan opera was a triumph for the opera program of the University of Illinois. It deserves to be widely played.

In truth, the libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain does have problems. Some might find the blending of the realistic and the supernatural, mirroring the "magic realism" fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, not quite a palatable mix. The heroine's search for her lover Cristobal ends without him ever appearing. Florencia's sublime musings clash with the warring married couple. Is it possible that Rosalba, who has filled a notebook with information on Florencia, cannot recognize the diva in the flesh?

But other operas with gorgeous scores survive glitches in the libretto. Just think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Riolobo, when he finally assumes a costume of a brilliant tropical bird, reminded me of — who else? — Papageno.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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