I’m afraid I don’t believe anything about Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas. It’s been floating around for almost 20 years now, since a 1996 premiere in Houston, and a successful afterlife at other opera companies around the around the world, though mainly in the United States, where it serves a very particular function: It looks and sounds a bit like an opera, checking off all the boxes of what opera is supposed to be and do, without presenting any real theatrical, musical or emotional challenges. Catán’s rather meager drama opened The Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.
It is inspired by the writings the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though even the program booklet doesn’t tell us exactly what he contributed. In a “Letter from the Artistic Director,” Francesca Zambello writes: “He helped our team to plan and create the tale of the libretto which was executed by his student Marcela and captured by the sound world of Daniel’s music.” Later in the booklet, the biography for librettist Marcella Fuentes-Berain puts it slightly differently: “In 1995 her mentor, teacher, and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked her to write an opera, Florencia in the Amazon, composed by Daniel Catán.”
Perhaps no contradiction there, but a good deal of vagueness about what “inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” actually means. I don’t detect much of Marquez’s voice, narrative adventure or grandeur of spirit in the story or the libretto. To my ear, there is about as much genuine Marquez in this opera as there is Giorgio Vasari in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The closest narrative comparison is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat with Fantasy Island. The basic structure is identical: The “El Dorado,” a paddle steamboat plying the waters of the Amazon, is boarding passengers for a run to the town of Manaus, and some mysterious power inherent in both the boat and the river promise life changes for all involved. The guests—two frustrated young people seeking love; an older married couple who have soured on their marriage; a mysterious woman of a certain age hoping to recapture the flame of an old romance—arrive, and we are introduced to them in a succession of short scenes. These vignettes are dutifully and predictably developed, one by one, before the characters are intertwined in ensembles; then the river grows angry and the act ends with the boat adrift and no one certain of the morrow.
It was also so dreadfully stale, so second-rate TV, that I thought for a moment that the second act would deconstruct the drivel, propel the opera into the world of critical parody or ironic fantasy. Perhaps it would do to the conventions of television what Anne Sexton did to the conventions of fairy tale. But there were no transformations. The opera continues just as it began, borrowing shamelessly but with no vitality, with plot twists that strain the credulity of even the most ardent fan of Magic Realism.
There are a few decent ensembles near the end of the first act, and a credible attempt at a kind of Straussian big soprano number at the end of the second. But Catán’s music is otherwise a stew of post-romantic clichés, a lot of fussy orchestral exoticism, and text setting that is mostly embedded within the orchestral fabric. Nobody sounds out of place, or at odds with the musical consensus, but there’s no particular distinction to anything they’re singing. A handful of motifs give consistency to the otherwise moment-by-moment twists and turns of the score; characters, especially Florencia (sung by soprano Christine Goerke), sometimes echo these motifs, brief, urgent little cells of melodic material reminiscent of 1970s pop tunes, that are scattered throughout but never developed into anything satisfying. Genuine characters never emerge because their vocal lines never really break free of the orchestral palette.
The directing, by Zambello—whose work is often trenchantly insightful—is a surprising disappointment. Five dancers, dressed in loin clothes and with feather headdresses, portray mischievous but ultimately benign spirits of the river. They are also astonishingly outdated avatars of the colonialist fantasy, erotic and ideological projections of danger, innocence and sexual allure onto the Native other. Pity poor Dan Snyder who can’t get anyone to believe that the “Redskins” is an honorific celebration of Native Americans; he would certainly love the carte blanche that opera audiences will give to these offensive caricatures (because no one holds opera to a higher standard). When cholera is discovered in the town of Manaus—from afar and through some kind of epidemiological supersensory powers of vision—the river spirits start carrying coffins through the river. It wasn’t easy to stifle laughter. A final scene in which Florencia may mutate into a giant butterfly, perhaps a nod to Strauss’s Daphne though not in any substantial musical way, is also a bit of a howler.
Despite this ridiculous material, the performers deserve recognition. Goerke was a dignified presence, and sang with steadiness and emotional commitment. Particularly impressive was the young soprano Andrea Carroll, who sang Rosalba. The voice is bright, clear and beautifully produced, and though she didn’t have much to work with, she made her character relatively convincing. As Paula, the embittered married woman floundering in a tempestuous marriage, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera was also a powerful presence. Baritone Norman Garrett sang the role of Riolobo with a rich, full, sonorous voice and plenty of athleticism. Riolobo is another river spirit, who also does double duty as a kind of ship’s purser and Greek chorus. But the role feels perilously close to the clichés of musical theater and racial stereotype (the supposedly mystical connections between race, the natural landscape and animist forces).
Keeping it all together, deftly and with a sure hand, was conductor Carolyn Kuan. It was Kuan’s debut at the WNO and her skill negotiating this thankless task makes one hope she will be invited back to conduct actual music at some point.
Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Alban Berg. Not every evening at the opera has to be Lulu or Wozzeck, and thank God for that. But the only way I can describe my disappointment is to consider the opera as part of a tradition that includes Lulu and Wozzeck, and other 20th-century operas of serious ambition and artistic stature. And Florencia doesn’t belong to that lineage. There is no authenticity here, no honest emotion, no credible drama, no reason for the audience to care or engage. This is a fabrication meant to serve as a placeholder for a real opera. That’s why one can’t just give it a pass, or construct half-hearted apologias for its mediocrity. Producing Florencia meant not producing something else. And that is a waste of resources.
Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera