Houston Grand Opera’s “Florencia” is a musical and visual delight

Sat Jan 19, 2019 at 1:05 pm
By Steven Brown

Ana María Martínez sang the title role in Houston Grand Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” on Friday. Photo: Lynn Lane

The Amazon journey began before the Brown Theater’s house lights went down. As Houston Grand Opera’s audience drifted in, the vista filling the proscenium — a river surrounded by lush greenery — looked at first like it might have been pulled from a storybook. Then a trio of sleek flamingos wafted through the scene, and a butterfly meandered through the undergrowth.

The video, by S. Katy Tucker, unfolded throughout Daniel Catán’s Florencia en al Amazonas. Even after conductor Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra launched Friday’s performance, Tucker’s video helped tell the story, right through the final image of butterfly wings symbolizing the heroine’s spiritual metamorphosis. Catán’s tale of an opera star returning to the village of her youth built up to that apotheosis richly on Friday.

If anything, the orchestra sounded a little too rich: Catán’s almost-constant flow of plush, full-bodied sonorities may have been meant to evoke the Amazon jungle’s luxuriance, but it often threatened to submerge the singers. Perhaps Summers and the orchestra could have handled the score a bit more lightly, but the challenge is more likely built into Catán’s thick textures.

Nevertheless, HGO’s cast — headed by soprano Ana María Martínez as the diva Florencia — by and large could assert themselves enough to put over the passions in the story and music. And when the orchestral scoring occasionally eased up enough to give them leeway, they captured the tenderness and introspection that emerge as Florencia and her shipmates travel down the Amazon.

Martínez brought Florencia’s soul-searching soliloquies the warmth and fervor she in recent seasons has lavished on such roles as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and the title role in Dvořák’s Russalka.

Martínez’s voice throbbed as Florencia invoked her long-unseen lover’s name —“Cristobal!” — or called out to him, “Escuchame!” (“Hear me!”) A few of the music’s leaps toward the stratosphere showed a little strain. But most of the time, Martínez was as compelling when her voice surged and soared as when it floated out pianissimo.

As Rosalba, a writer who has studied Florencia from afar — and, for most of the opera, doesn’t know that she’s onboard with her idol — soprano Alicia Gianni complemented the fullness of Martínez’s singing with her own, more silvery tones. When their voices vaulted in turn during ensembles, the phrases had a bit of echo-like kinship, yet each had an identity of its own.

And when Rosalba met Arcadio, the ship captain’s nephew, Gianni sang with a conversational lightness that showed curiosity blossoming into affection. Tenor Joshua Guerrero’s vibrant, ringing voice left no doubt that Arcadio’s feelings matched Rosalba’s. And before that romance took hold, Guerrero sang with an impact that captured the frustration of a youth who wants to experience more of life than he can as a member of a ship’s crew.

Portraying Paula and Alvaro, a married couple whose affection has faded, mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and baritone Thomas Glass at first let acid-tinged tones prevail. But after Alvaro fell overboard, apparently lost, Herrera brought her soliloquy a tenderness and glow that revealed that some love still remained.

Given the weight of the opera’s orchestration, the role of Riolobo — who morphs from a narrator into something of a deus ex machina probably demands a voice of Wagnerian heft. Bass Norman Garrett didn’t have that. But his resonance and dignity gave Riolobo enough stature to hold his pivotal place in the story.

Bass David Pittsinger brought his own resonance and dignity to the part of the ship’s Capitán. And five dancers, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, played water spirits who wafted around the boat at crucial moments, saluting nature and helping Riolobo work some of his miracles.

Director Francesca Zambello and associate director E. Loren Meeker shaped all this into a staging that brought out the humanity and realism amid the story’s tinges of the magical. For instance, the opening scenes showed Florencia literally and figuratively shedding the veil of the diva traveling incognito. In her first soliloquy, Martínez swayed gently to the music’s rhythm as Florencia thought back to long-ago love.

And when Florencia learned that Rosalba — who didn’t know her identity — had been writing a book about her, Martínez’s smiles showed the first stirrings of a connection that eventually led to an embrace. All the while, Tucker’s video images not only illustrated the ship’s voyage down the Amazon, but helped drive home the emotional journeys that lie at Florencia’s heart.

Florencia en al Amazonas will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday and on other dates through Feb. 3 in the Brown Theater in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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