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Opening-night crowds for the contemporary operas at the Met this season have been palpably enthused, and it was no different for the premiere last week of Daniel Catán’s 1996 work, Florencia en el Amazonas. As conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin took his opening bows, someone in the back of the orchestra section yelled loudly, “Viva la ópera en español!” Both conductor and audience applauded vigorously.
Inspired by Gabriel García Márquez, particularly his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, with a libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, this is only the third Spanish-language opera presented by the Met (the last was a 1926 production of de Falla’s La Vida Breve). It’s less a staging of Márquez’s magical-realist style than an extension of the basic magic of opera, where thoughts and speech are turned into song, and music turns the commonplace into drama.
The score and Mary Zimmerman’s production do just that in entertaining fashion. The plot has a group of passengers steaming down the Amazon to the theatre in Manaus to see mysterious diva Florencia Grimaldi (soprano Ailyn Pérez). Inside this are stories of finding, remembering and rediscovering love: journalist Rosalba (soprano Gabriella Reyes), researching Grimaldi, is drawn to the captain’s nephew, Arcadio (tenor Mario Chang); married couple Paula (mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (baritone Michael Chioldi) have lost their passion; Grimaldi is travelling incognito, hoping to find her long-lost lover, lepidopterist Cristóbal. But there is cholera in Manaus, and not everyone finds happiness.
There is magic in the plot, with trickster-like figure Riolobo (baritone Mattia Olivieri in his house debut) as a deus ex machina, and often in the score too. Catán’s language is vivid romanticism, with evocations of ballets by Stravinsky and helpings of Ravel. It is lyrical, colourful, with great vitality, each rhythm and phrase questing for transformation, pregnant with the characters’ longing for love.
That is focused through Pérez, who is excellent. With three big arias, the music seems to suit her voice and personality, her sound lustrous, full and elegant. Her singings gives the sense that she has all the time in the world to enjoy the beauty in the music. Reyes was an equal, balancing a lovely voice and urgent expression. The orchestra sounds fantastic, seeming as familiar with the score as anything by Verdi.
Zimmerman’s staging is simple and strong. The sets by Riccardo Hernández (debuting at the Met) are jungle-green and river-blue; Ana Kuzmanić’s costumes create things like piranhas with red evening gowns and silver fish helmets. A heron dances around and, in a lovely poetic moment, Grimaldi’s search ends with her own transformation into a butterfly.
Given Riolobo’s powers, there is only so much struggle, which limits the emotion. But this is still an involving production with lots of pleasures. It flows like a river and adds to the sense of renewal through contemporary works at the Met this fall.
To December 14, metopera.org