“Florencia en al Amazonas,” currently being presented by Florida Grand Opera at the Arsht Center in Miami, is inspired by the writings of celebrated Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. The challenge for any librettist is taking great literature and effectively adapting the story for the stage while retaining the integrity and artisty of the author’s original words.
Márquez is by no means light reading—his most lauded work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” is certainly an example—but I was struck by how much librettist Marcela Fuentez-Berain’s derivation reminded me more of an episode of “The Love Boat.”
Did you see that special episode where the Pacific Princess took a trip up the Amazon? I didn’t think so, but the formula is still the same:
The opera opens on the pier. The Capitán (Rafael Porto) and his discontent nephew Arcadio (Andrew Bidlack), the ship’s “Gopher,” welcome the colorful cast of passengers aboard the riverboat El Dorado.
The audience is introduced to the elusive Florencia Grimaldi (Ana María Martinez), a famed opera diva who always travels incognito, only making public appearances on stage, and returning to her hometown of Manaus after a two-decade absence. She’s really on a mission to reconnect with her long-lost lover and muse Cristobál, a butterfly hunter lost years ago in the dense rainforest.
Rosalba (Cecilia Violetta López) is a young, star-struck journalist writing a biography of the singer, even though she has never met Grimaldi. Paula (Mariya Kaganskaya) and Alvaro (William Lee Bryan) are the comically bickering married couple.
Riolobo (Steven LaBrie) is the incredibly sexy—just wait until he takes his shirt off—yet mysterious character who serves as part narrator and part spirit guide for the passengers and crew. When the ship encounters a freak storm and runs aground, he implores the river gods to spare their lives.
The figurative “three-hour cruise” goes the way of “Gilligan’s Island” to open the second act and when the ship finally returns to the river and reaches Manaus, the passengers must turn back because of a cholera outbreak. Like any “Love Boat” episode, quarreling lovers eventually reconcile, Florencia confronts her past and the ship seemingly returns to port safely.
The real triumph of “Florencia en al Amazonas” is the Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s lush and lyrical score. Even though the opera received its premiere more than 20 years ago, Catán’s music is firmly rooted in tradition, frequently evoking the rich harmonies of Puccini and Menotti and the colorful orchestrations of Stravinsky and Debussy.
Catán also channels the great film composers from the golden days of Hollywood, like David Raksin (“Laura”) and Bernard Herrman, the genius behind the unforgettable scores of Alfred Hitchcock’s classics. Catán’s melodies are always tonal and accessible to all and were beautifully performed on opening night under the direction of resident musical director Ramón Tebar.
Phillip Lienau’s simple, yet incredibly versatile set—the ship’s long deck—is also lent a cinematic quality thanks to panoramic animated projections by Aaron Rhyne and expert lighting design by Kenneth Yunker. Director Jose Maria Condemi rises to the challenges of this work, never overlooking the most subtle, enlightening moments nor overplaying the most dramatic.
“Florencia en al Amazonas” may never be revered in the same way as Márquez’s literary works, but it remains a stalwart example of the contemporary opera repertoire as evidenced by this production at Florida Grand Opera.