Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s opera was the Metropolitan Opera’s third HD telecast of this season. The work was first performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. This run is Florencia’s first appearance at the Met. Much has been made over two features of the opera neither of which has any bearing on its artistic worth. It’s the first opera in Spanish to be done at the Met since 1926 and only the third in total. So what? As Verdi said, there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. The language it’s written in satisfies neither of these two conditions. It is also said to be influenced by the magical realism style of Garcia-Marquez, especially the great novel Love in the Time of Cholera. The Mozart of The Magic Flute would seem a more apt model. I could see nothing of the late novelist’s hand in the opera.
Of more importance is the opera’s musical roots. They are firmly in tonality. Much of the writing is set to recitatives, but Catán knew how to write compelling recitatives that lack the whiny repetitive composing style that characterizes most modern operas. His music for Florencia is dramatically apt, pleasant, and engaging though there is not a melody that will stay in the listener’s ear for a minute after the show’s conclusion. Musically, this was the best of the three newish operas that the Met had sent round the world thus far this season. Verdi is next up on the HD season so the traditional attendee can relax.
As for the performance, it was first-rate in all respects. The sets were minimal but colorful and strongly supported the story. A few railings set the scene on a ship going from Columbia to Manaus, Brazil. Dancers were dressed in fanciful costumes that gave animation to the imaginative beasts that the ship’s passengers encountered on their voyage down the river. There was a slithering puppet crocodile who made several appearances and a skeletal iguana. An amusing monkey was played by a marionette. This was the first time in ancient memory that anything close to a puppet improved a show at the Met which has littered several productions with oafish dummies playing real people.
There’s not much to the opera’s plot save that it allows a voyage down the Amazon with several interludes passing for a well made story. The main character is Florencia Grimaldi a famous opera singer heading to Manaus for a performance. She’s still looking for her long lost lover who disappeared a decade or so ago in search of rare butterflies. She doesn’t find him but settles for turning into a butterfly herself at the opera’s end hoping that if she can’t find him, he may find her. The name Grimaldi is an inside joke as it’s the surname used by the soprano lead in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. She was brilliantly portrayed by Ailyn Pérez whose voice carried all the demands of her part with ease and consummate skill – a great artist at the summit of her powers.
Gabriella Reyes and Michael Chioldi were the reluctant lovers unable to commit to love until the story’s end. Only after Alvaro’s (Chioldi) seemingly miraculous return from the dead after the boat sank during a storm did the two re-establish their relationship. Mattia Olivieri was Riolobo a figure who served as an intermediary between the fantasy world and that of the ship’s passengers. The vessel’s captain was well played by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley.
I kept waiting for Fitzcarraldo to show up, but he must be in another opera, though he gets to Manaus and its opera house unlike Florencia and her companions who are diverted from the town by a cholera outbreak.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with his usual elan. His player were on their marks and Catán’s lush score was played with distinction. A word about the maestro’s dress. It’s getting more colorful with each appearance. For this performance, he was in a yellow shirt and pants that were festooned with glitter. He looked like he belonged onstage as one of the fantasy animals. Were he a century and a half older, he could have been one of the reasons Wagner wanted the orchestra out of sight when he built his theater in Bayreuth.
In summary, a creatively staged production of an opera that is well constructed and easy to take, though it’s unlikely to be a keeper. Its performers were as good as could be found anywhere. Special honors go to Ms Pérez who is an artist of exceptional ability. A copy of the opera’s program notes is at the end of this review.