Saturday, September 27, 2014

Washington National Opera – Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas. September 24, 2014.

Opera House at  The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC.  Tier 1 (Seat E212, $95.)

Story.  The story takes place on a steamship named El Dorado sailing from Leticia to Manaus on the Amazon.  One of the passengers, the legendary diva Florencia, is returning to the town in which she grew up for a concert at the opera house.  She is looking forward to meet Cristobal, a butterfly hunter whose passion awakened her voice before she left.  Also on the boat are the couple Paula and Alvaro, they are hoping a trip to attend the concert will rekindle their romance; the young writer Rosalba working on a biography of Florencia; the Captain’s nephew Arcadio whose dream is to become a pilot; the Captain who has a great love for the sea; and Riobolo, who has a multiple role of deckhand, narrator, and – for a few moments – the river god.  Paula and Alvaro starts off by bickering over everything but eventually rediscovered their love for each other after Alvaro falls overboard in a storm but miraculously survives.  Rosalba and Arcadio fall in love despite their being career-minded.  As the boat nears Manaus, Riobolo announces that the city is suffering a cholera epidemic and the passengers cannot disembark.  Florencia has found out earlier that Cristobal may be dead already, but sends her song towards him anyway, saying “I know that you hear me in life or in death.  If you were not listening, my song would cease.”  The story ends with her being transformed into a butterfly.

Conductor – Carolyn Kuan; Florencia – Melody Moore, Riolobo – Norman Garrett, Rosalba – Andrea Carroll, Paula – Nancy Fabiola Herrera, Alvaro – Michael Todd Simpson, The Captain – David Pittsinger, Arcadio – Patrick O’Halloran; Principal Dancers – Durell Comedy, Allison Mixon, Christopher Pennix, Matthew Steffens, Ricardo Zayas.

Anne has a business trip to DC for a couple of days, Amtrak tickets were on sale (less than $120 roundtrip) so I decided to tag along.  I found out about this opera at the WNO website, and also from Goldstar that discounted tickets were available (regular price around $150.)

On top of that, there are some interesting aspects to the opera and the performance.  This opera was commissioned by the opera companies in Houston, LA, and Seattle, and was first performed in Houston in 1996.  There must be very few operas with libretto in Spanish (I don’t recall having seen a single one,) so it would be a first for me.  The librettist Marcela Fuentes Berain was a student of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the latter being a Nobel Literature Prize winner known for “magical realism.”  In researching for a trip to Brazil (which I didn’t take) I found out about this Amazon Opera House built by rubber industrialists located in Manaus.  Finally, the conductor is a young Chinese American woman who has recently been appointed as director of the Hartford Symphony.  All in all a lot of interesting aspects that I looked forward to.

I didn’t walk away disappointed.  On the other hand, I didn’t walk away being wowed either.  Another case of reality not living up to expectations.  Admittedly, some of the expectations were of my own doing (such as expecting to learn more about the Amazon Opera House and the conductor,) but WNO did nothing to moderate the hype with their use of words and phrases such as “magical realism,” “visually stunning,” “inspired,” and “mesmerizing.”

The storyline is remarkably straightforward.  The stories of the two couple are quite simple: two of them rediscovered their love, and the other two couldn’t help but fall in love.  This is told matter-of-factly, no suspense, no surprises.  This contrasts poignantly with the fate of the protagonist; hers is an unknown.  Either the librettist is not capable of doing anything other than the most obvious, or didn’t bother to do so.

Great music would have easily made up for that shortcoming.  The music is certainly okay and relatively easy to follow, but nowhere near the “great” end of the spectrum of modern music I have heard.  It is contemporary sounding, but yet gives me the impression that the composer was more trying to avoid being called “classical” than trying to forge new ways of expression.  The melodies while not easily hummable are pleasant to hear, but don’t always match up with the mood of the moment.

My seat allowed me a view of the back of Kuan’s head and her arms as she went about her job.  She was a very precise conductor, giving cues to the singers throughout the work.  Her work with the orchestra had the appearance of simple time-keeping; yet the orchestra played with great precision.

The singing was good but generally devoid of emotion.  The opera house is on the small side (2350 per their website), so it was a bit surprising sometimes the acoustics was on the weak side.  There were a lot of empty seats – the two rows behind me were completely empty.  WNO evidently has a young artists program named Domingo-Cafritz, from which many of the singers graduated.

If there is one clear disappointment, it is the staging.  Basically it consisted of a mock-up steamship (or parts thereof) that can rotate on a platform, with projections in the back to represent various sceneries.  I had my complaints about the Met’s Ring production which also used a lot of projections (in that case onto planks), but that is great artistry compared to this.

This is the one single prop used throughout the opera.

Five dancers were used in the opera representing various things such as a school of piranhas and stormy waves.  The Playbill devoted much space to explain the genius behind the choreography and how the use of one woman dancer modified the level of energy.  I certainly appreciated the athleticism of the dancers, but fail to see how this group is different from the many other groups I have seen before.

If I were a reviewer writing about the opera, I would use phrases such as: straightforward plot, pleasant music, competent delivery, and simple sets.

As is my usual practice, I refrain from reading review until I finish mine, so … here is the review in the Washington Post.  The reviewer has also a mediocre assessment of the show she saw (with the role of Florencia sung by another soprano,) although she did it with much better prose.  I do want to quote what she said at the outset: “Also like a dream: It’s not as substantial as it looks.”  My disagreement with that is I didn’t even think it looked substantial.  The reviewer also found the dancers distracting.

I was staying in the National Zoo area, and it was quite straightforward to get to the JFK Center from there.  On my way back I picked up some Chicken McNuggets and share them with Anne back at the hotel.