Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings — Mexican Composer Daniel Catán’s ‘Brazilian’ Opera

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Florencia en el Amazonas (diapasoncd.com)

A Bug’s Love-Life — or Rather, Love-Death!

In the 1915 novel The Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka’s timeless, semi-autobiographical take on the alienation he felt as an angst-ridden, German-speaking Jewish youth growing up in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect (or a cockroach, in some editions).

Unable to cope with this disfigurement, Gregor’s uncomprehending family members lock him up in his upstairs bedroom, where as the story progresses he slowly withers away from despondency and neglect.

Looked at for what it was — an allegorical escape from the crushing responsibilities of a harsh, bourgeois lifestyle — Gregor’s pitiable condition and grief-filled end grew out of not just his unconscious choosing, but from the Czech writer’s personal recollections of, and experiences with, his own notoriously troubled relations. They eventually became, in his subsequent writings, indistinguishable from himself.

Why anyone would believe such a depressing subject would make for an equally enthralling lyric showpiece is beyond imagining. This undeniable fact has mercifully spared tune-starved adherents of modern music from witnessing the unfolding of such a distasteful stage event — until now. All it took to change most minds was for one dauntless Mexican-born composer to give a dying diva her due.

To be precise, in Daniel Catán’s twentieth-century masterwork Florencia en el Amazonas (“Florencia in the Amazon”), the title character, an aging prima donna — the emblematic Fat Lady herself, come to life — returns home, to a late nineteenth-century version of northern Brazil, for a trip down the Amazon River; to the fabled pink-marbled opera house of Manaus (the starting point being the city of Leticia, in Colombia), in what she hopes will be a life-altering reencounter with her former lover Cristóbal, a lepidopterist gone missing in the jungle for over 20 years.

His life’s work, reflected in the plot by his unsuccessful quest for the rare Emerald Muse butterfly — a search that led the aspiring singer to abandon her beau for a career on the European stage — mirrors Florencia’s own unfulfilled ambitions, in what composer Catán has circumspectly described as “the return journey we all undertake at a certain point in our lives: the moment when we look back at what we once dreamed of becoming, and then confront what we have now become.”

Final scene of Act II (cincinnatiopera.org)

The moving final scene, a luminous aural summation of the best of such classical scene-painters as Debussy, Ravel, Puccini, and Erik Satie — with hints of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold thrown in, primarily in the shimmering orchestral writing and glowing vocal line — has Florencia collapse at the moment the steamboat El Dorado pulls into port upon hearing the dreaded news that cholera has broken out in the area.

Realizing she may never see her lost love again, Florencia bursts into song and, in accordance with the composer’s written precepts, “her voice, her song, and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly.” The diva then “breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings,” and, thus liberated from her earthly confines, she is magically transformed, through the power of love and her own self-imposed metamorphosis, into the very object (or “Muse”) her lover was looking for all those missing years in the rain forest.

Whereas Gregor’s symbolic change occurs near the beginning of Kafka’s rueful tome, Florencia’s takes shape at the tail end, so to speak, of nearly two hours of “concentrated music drama,” culminating in what delighted reviewers have correctly referred to as an ennobling, Latin American account of Isolde’s transcendent Liebestod, or “love-death.”

As fascinating as all this may sound to readers, what possible link can there be between these two diametrically opposed oeuvres?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (ecuadortimes.net)

In the first place, Florencia’s skillfully-constructed, Spanish-language libretto, written by Marcela Fuentes-Beráin — a protégée of Nobel Prize-winning laureate, Gabriel García Márquez — was inspired, to no small extent, by the renowned Colombian writer’s “magical realism” style, a trend endemic to many of his fiction works, in particular the novels Love in the Time of Cholera (1986) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), as well as the short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (1972).

In the second, it should come as no surprise to learn that while he was still a struggling student of law in his native land, young Márquez was given a copy of the aforementioned Metamorphosis to leaf through.*

In recounting the “liberating effect” this epiphany had on his literary output, the author sheepishly disclosed to fans that he “didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that… that’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.”

The astounding musical conception that emerged from this fictional backdrop — a marvelous compendium of hallowed themes (“love, redemption and transfiguration”) both familiar and sublime to followers of composer Richard Wagner — takes root in the natural world; the tactile, all-enveloping physical realm of tropical flora and fauna, something the nature-loving German master would have found great affinity for, while not straying too far afield from its essentially preternatural state.

Catán explained it further: “The fantastic elements (in magical realism) really are symbols for some emotional or internal solution to a problem dressed in this exotic way. But the solutions to situations are internal solutions — not like a deus ex machina — that get presented in a poetic way.”

As director Andrew Morton, who remounted the successful 1996 world-premiere production of Florencia in Houston for its 2001 return engagement, in addition to supervising the 1997 presentation at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, so deftly elucidates for us: “What it means is that strange things go on which are metaphors for the feelings and emotions which the characters are experiencing.”

Keith Miller as Riolobo (denverpost.com)

One of these “strange things” is eloquently conveyed in the lead baritone role of Riolobo, El Dorado’s resident steersman — in reality, a mercurial, form-changing figure who is not quite what he seems: part magical tour-guide, part Greek chorus-style commentator, he’s an operatic second cousin to the gods and nobles once embodied by celebrated male castratos of the gaudy Baroque period.

A dashing free-spirit of the rain forest region as well, Riolobo (or “River-Wolf”) is also the grand manipulator of environmental events — such as the sudden pink rainstorm that washes the characters clean at the close of the first-act curtain — that gives the opera its mysterious air and feel. He is no match, however, for the mythical Amazon itself.

Indeed, the world’s mightiest river takes on a musical life of its own, thanks to the tender loving care Catán lavished on it in characterizing this vital aspect of his work: “I learned about the dangers of river navigation, and also about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears.”

Praised by critics for his “finely honed sense of theater” and “wonderful command of sonority,” the composer was unjustifiably pounced upon by others for his supposed indifference to the rich legacy of native-Indian sources seemingly at his beck-and-call.

“I was not interested in caricaturing any indigenous element in the Amazon,” Catán was quick to counter. “When thinking about the way I would capture the music of the river, or the soul of the river, I decided to use a lot of wind instruments and a lot of percussion instruments. It seemed to me [those] would be the right ones to capture the flow of the river, and the way it constantly changes as it flows.”

A cursory peek at the opera’s 45-piece construction would seem to corroborate this point: it reveals a decided shortage of strings, supplemented in turn by such exotic-sounding additions as tubular bells, marimba, djembe, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, harmonium, electric organ, synthesizer, and something called a sarrusophone — an unwieldy cross between a saxophone and a bassoon.

In acknowledging the score’s one-of-a-kind sound-design, original stage director Francesca Zambello, who, along with set designer Robert Israel, was responsible for the Houston and Los Angeles co-productions, eagerly affirmed that, “Nowadays, we are returning to an era when people want music to be something that relates to their emotional world. Daniel writes music that people have an immediate response to… [his] style is very romantic, lush and emotionally expressive. It’s quite direct and powerful.”

Florencia is Flourishing

Discounting the strictly romantic notions surrounding this extraordinary, post-romantic piece — chronologically, Catán’s third large-scale effort and his second for the lyric stage — what makes Florencia en el Amazonas so attractive to present-day theatergoers is its distinctly melodic appeal, even in the insufferable salons of Western Europe, which hardly knew what to make of this delicate yet passionate classical creation.

“Old realism is [being] replaced by the ‘magical realism’ of Latin America,” declared Bernd Feuchter, the German-born former editor of the magazine Opernwelt (“Opera World”) and one of the newly crowned heads of the Heidelberg Theatre, where Florencia was about to be unveiled — for the first time — on European soil, in a less-than-lavish new production set for the end of April 2006.

“I fell in love with this music,” Feuchter insisted, in a 2005 e-mail interview for Opera News, “and I wrote a rave review. And I knew, nobody in Europe will dare to stage this opera because it is too beautiful.” Nobody, that is, until he himself decided to do it.

“While opera in old Europe seems dead as a doornail,” he went on, “over there [in America] it is giving birth to magnificent things… In cultural matters, it’s important to put aside this arrogance we have in consuming only what is produced here in Europe, and look instead at what’s being done in other parts of the world.”

Like the incredible, long-distance journey of the monarch butterfly, this more open-minded attitude regarding major works from across the shores was a long time in coming. Moreover, it fit right in with the Mexican composer’s ethnocentric views of the art, as he certainly saw it: “I’m going more deeply into my own culture… I’m going back to a Latin American story. I’m taking characters out of my own literature and my own mind. I want to look south and in, rather than toward Europe.”

As the eminently approachable theater-piece it was predestined to become, possessed of “the artful beauty of traditional opera, a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification,” Florencia initially turned up in the revitalized repertoires of American regional opera companies.

Florencia en el Amazonas (operacolorado.org)

Commencing with Houston Grand Opera, which commissioned, and strongly supported, the soul-searching South American-themed work (and where it was later revived in the spring of 2001), it was followed by the Los Angeles Opera version almost a year later, then by Seattle Opera’s subsequent staging in both 1998 and 2005. Cincinnati Opera brought the partially rebuilt original production to its main stage in July 2008, where once-skeptical audiences pronounced it “a musical triumph.”

Miraculously, the opera did not stop there, having taken flight on its own sometimes-fragile wings (albeit in concert form) to Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, in 1999; from there, it quite naturally alighted, in May 2003 — in a hastily-arranged tropical display — atop the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, where excerpts were performed by a team of native-born artists, namely baritone Homero Velho and mezzo Madga Painno.

All that remains at this point is for Florencia to secure a stronger foothold on the world’s premier concert platforms — it’s already well on the way to doing just that, as evidenced by the foregoing — and for it to be given the center spotlight on the stages of such universally recognized landmarks as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, London’s Covent Garden, and the Beaux Arts beauties of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in Brazil.

What Flies Around, Comes Around

It would be the perfect homecoming gift for a real-life prima donna: i.e., carioca soprano Eliane Coelho, the country’s own wandering minstrel and the emblematic Fat Lady herself, come to life — and, like the character of her fictitious counterpart, Florencia, a longtime resident of the European continent — in a memorable return trip to the Teatro Municipal of Rio, the singer’s venue of choice.

Striking a characteristic Christ-the-Redeemer pose, the theater’s management would welcome the deserving diva with the same wide-open stance; but, more importantly, it would regale Madame Coelho with a fabulous new production of the work — you will forgive the author if he indulges here in a bit of “magical realism” of his own— designed, built, and conceived, especially for her, by none other than that innovative theater director, Mr. Gerald Thomas; and majestically conducted, of course, in inimitable Mahler-like fashion by noted Brazilian maestro John Neschling.

What a triple-threat feature that jolly threesome would make! If they can’t affect a metamorphic turnaround in the fortunes of New World stage-works, then no one can.

Considering what Brazilian opera once dreamed of becoming and has now undeniably become, by its very nature and title alone Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas would seem to encompass all the requisite qualities sufficient to satisfy the most demanding of stage connoisseurs, while lighting the way to a (hopefully) brighter future for the art.

It could even transcend the form, if need be, to become a viable candidate for that first-ever non-Brazilian, Brazilian national opera — a radical proposal, I agree, given that there’s nothing remotely Brazilian-sounding at all in the music, something a committed nationalist such as Heitor Villa-Lobos was incapable of doing in his vast composing career.

No matter how it’s done, though, please let it happen soon, before the Fat Lady starts to sing. By then it may be too late, for new operas, along with the rarest of butterflies, all too often die an early death.

Daniel Catan (latimes.com)

Such will not be the fate of this gorgeous work, I can assure you — not if Catán had anything to say about it.

“The image of the butterfly, supremely beautiful from the moment of its birth, is overtly present at the end of Florencia,” the composer cogently summarized, in his album notes for Albany Records’ recording of the live 2001 performance from Houston Grand Opera. “But it is an image that has been present in my mind as I composed several of my works. I have asked myself why.

“I think it is my way of understanding the moment when something is no more, my way of transforming it, like when I finish an opera, and say goodbye to characters that have lived with me for so long and have taught me so much, that grew out of me so I could be born out of them, that are, in the end, indistinguishable from myself.”

Kafka and Márquez would most heartily agree. ☼

(Final Note: Daniel Catán passed away suddenly on April 8, 2011, at the age of 62. He will be sorely missed.)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Kafka himself had once been a frustrated law school graduate. In his case, it was probably a good enough reason as any to have turned away from an unfulfilling career with the bar to become a full-fledged fiction writer with a fervent following.

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2 thoughts on “Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings — Mexican Composer Daniel Catán’s ‘Brazilian’ Opera

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