The lush jungle, alive and intensely green, saturated by the sun, is the first thing that hits you as you take your seat at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The spectacle is dense and glorious — then vaguely unsettling — as you become aware of mysterious skitterings behind the leaves.
“Florencia en el Amazonas” (Florencia in the Amazon) takes place on a boat trip up the Amazon, its destination Manaus, the inland capital of the Amazonas region, far up the river where, unbeknownst to these travelers, cholera looms. The vessel’s passengers are onboard for reasons they don’t quite understand, driven variously by love, or the fear of it, or the fading of it.
In the case of Florencia Grimaldi, a famous diva of the European opera stage, her visit is a quest born of the desire to rekindle a long-lost love. She once said goodbye to him in Manaus, she thought temporarily, in pursuit of an international career that was dangled after her Brazilian success. (He was a butterfly hunter back then, a specialist in his own right, chasing his own rare prize, the Emerald Muse.)
So is this ”Love Boat,” with music and a happy ending? It might have been, were it not for the lush music of the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán, who lived many years in Los Angeles and died in 2011. Catán’s opera, mystical in concept, is sung here in the original Spanish, and it is awash with the romantic spirit of Puccini and the exotic colors of Debussy and Ravel. It’s the first time ever that a work in the Spanish language has been performed on Lyric Opera’s mainstage.
“Florencia en el Amazonas” first appeared in 1996 at the Houston Grand Opera. Martinez was in a supporting role for the premiere run, graduating to the marquee in subsequent revivals. The action occurs on a river boat, which turns in the waters, affording seamless scene changes as we peer into the passengers’ lives. The concept is the brainchild of the sure-footed director Francesca Zambello, who has been associated with the work since the beginning.
As shaped by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, the story meanders some as various couples on the boat go through their travails, and Catán’s lush music would have done well with additional tension and tightening. Yet taken as a whole, this opera is a significant work of the 1990s that, much like John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” and Philip Glass’ interstellar “The Voyage,” charts a course decidedly away from atonal European post-modernism. Audiences have loved its romance and beauty from the start.
A strong ensemble cast is led by mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel and baritone Levi Hernandez as Paula and Alvaro, a middle-aged couple thoroughly disenchanted with each other, and their counterparts, soprano Gabriella Reyes and tenor Mario Rojas as Rosalba and Arcadio, a young couple tempted by, but terrified of, serious romance. Their card-playing quartet is a classic set-piece that starts as an amiable get-together and ends in a double hiccup of hesitation and reversal, played smartly and with no little humor by all involved.
Reyes is also in a memorable scene with Martínez toward the end of the opera, when the younger woman (who is a writer seeking a scoop) figures out that the great diva is actually right there on the boat. But these are better moments musically than they are dramatically. The digression into this subplot is a bit weak, the story turn perhaps one too many.
Several important factors heightened the magical nature of the story: the conjuring, rather Shakespearean spirit Riolobo (baritone Ethan Vincent), who was riveting while remaining a mystery, and the orchestral washes of sound conjured by conductor Jordan de Souza and the Lyric Opera Orchestra, which performed superbly. Lyric company dancers added a mesmerizing element as water sprites, a fluid reflection of nature’s magic, and its menace. Star billing as well goes to the shimmering lighting of Mark McCullough and the projections of S. Katy Tucker. They wrapped the stage in ever-changing colors from first to last.