Sunday, September 28, 2014

Florencia in the Amazon: Remembering Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Washington National Opera opened its 2014-2015 season with Daniel Catán's opera Florencia in the Amazon. The work is said to be inspired by magic realism of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello brought to Washington her 1996 world premiere production of Florencia in the Amazon from Houston Grand Opera.

WNO Florencia in the Amazon - opening scene
When Marquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Croatia in the early 1970s, it dominated conversations at Zagreb cafes, dinner parties, klatch groups and practically every place where people got together for whatever reason. The topic was not restricted to literary or highly educated circles. Since the black-and-white TV carried mostly live broadcasts of Communist Party sessions and overly long and boring "cultural" discussions, while iPhones and computers did not exist, young people in Zagreb flocked to theaters, cafes, bars, and clubs and socialized. After closing time, reading in bed was about the only available form of entertainment.

And so almost everyone read: receptionists, bank clerks, nurses and technicians as well as students of arts and humanities and the so-called intelligentsia. When you stepped into your favorite cafe of an evening, you had to know what everyone was talking about or you'd be excluded. During one particular season in the 1970s, everyone talked about One Hundred Years of Solitude. I specifically remember explaining the finesses of Marquez's magic realism to a typist from the Interior Ministry who may have not graduated from high school, but had the ambition of seducing the son of a rich and famous sculptor. Whether I knew what I was talking about is another matter, but she listened to my exposé with wide opened eyes and baited breath.

I predicted that Garcia Marquez would get the Nobel Prize for literature, which he did in 1982, and then came my most favorite work of his, Love in the Time of Cholera. My fascination with the Colombian author lasted for a good while longer. Long enough to make the 2007 movie with Javier Bardem a must-see, and long enough to be curious about Catán's opera.

An interesting piece of trivia about Florencia has made it even more compelling: the 1996 Houston premiere was conducted by late Croatian conductor Vjekoslav Sutej. The WNO orchestra was led by Carolyn Kuan whom I first saw just last month in Santa Fe, conducting the U.S. premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat Sen.

Carolyn Kuan with WNO's Michael Solomon,
Santa Fe, August 2014

I went to see WNO's production with another European friend, both of us curious as to how Garcia Marquez's magic realism would translate into opera. As it turned out, the libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain was not based on any particular work by Garcia Marquez. It was, as we learned, largely conceived by the composer and worked out with the librettist who was a student of Garcia Marquez.

Florencia Grimaldi, a celebrated operatic diva, tired of her celebrity status, travels incognito on a steamboat down the Amazon to the jungle city of Manaus.  She is looking for the love of her life, butterfly collector Cristóbal, whom she had abandoned to pursue operatic glory.  No one has heard of him in a long time and Florencia is not sure if he is still alive.  But the deeper she gets into the jungle, the more she senses his presence.

Two other couples are on the boat, one young and falling in love, the other long married and bickering.  All are heading for Manaus expecting to hear the famous diva sing.

Almost from the opening bars of Catán's opera I felt I was walking into the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was the water and the jungle and the isolated Utopian world of Macondo,  in this case a ship called El Dorado. Florencia Grimaldi was as solid-looking as I had once imagined the Solitude's immortal matriarch Úrsula Iguarán to be. Video projections, gradually shifting from a jungle setting into a more abstract world, solidified the impression of Macondo.

Catán's music is rich and melodic, sometimes exotic, sometimes cinematic and always beautiful. Reviewers have found similarities with Puccini, Ravel and even Stravinsky in the score, on occasion hinting it is a bad thing. "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" is a bridal formula for a good wedding, why not for a good music score? I, for one, can find similarities in any opera with bits and pieces from another. But it is the complete effect that matters in the end. With familiar elements Catán has created a new ephemeral piece that I would like to hear again at home on CD. He gave all three female characters gorgeous arias, especially to Florencia, naturally. All three singers have acquitted themselves wonderfully in the WNO production. Christine Georke is my new favorite soprano. In between arias are passionate duets, choral passages and instrumental interludes, always changing the mood, hinting at things coming...

The opera is short on action but big on emotion, mostly love between man and woman, but also love of nature, it seems. Love can bring the dead back to life and turn those alive into spirits (of a butterfly?) But it is not static as some have described it. Everything happens on the ship, which is rotating to create a different atmosphere, all in sync with the changing background, and giving a sense of moving through time and place. But it is an exotic and dream-like place, at least for those of us who have never seen a real-life jungle. Occasional sounds of marimba, off-stage chorus or isolated violins intensify the sense of being in a foreign land. Adding to the exotic are the dancers in native American dress that represent river spirits.

Christine Goerke as Florencia at WNO
The spirits, four men and one woman, circle the ship, sometimes impersonating piranhas (do piranhas live in the Amazon?), but seem to be benevolent and sympathetic to human pain. In response to wails of loss and regret, they retrieve Rosalba's manuscript from the river's bottom and deliver Paula's drowned husband alive back on the ship's deck.

On arrival to its destination,  the El Dorado crew and passengers find the city of Manaus in the grips of a cholera epidemic and have to turn back. Just like in a dream, the mission is not accomplished. At least in my dream. I never arrive at a destination and never find what I am looking for in any of my dreams. One setting usually dissolves into another and with it one situation becomes another. So do things in Catán's opera.  The ship's captain tells Florencia: "There is no coming and going.  No one step is ever the same.  No turn is ever a return."

My friend and I left the theater reminiscing about Marquez's literature, or rather what we remember of it today. The most vivid memories on my part were of the story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. We agreed that Florencia in the Amazon conveyed the spirit of Garcia Marquez's dream world as well as any of his books, and that for those who have not read any, at least this opera can turn realism into magic, if only for two hours.

* * * *
Florencia in the Amazon's short run in Washington ended today. Those keen on seeing it will have another chance in November and December in Los Angeles.

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