The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Daniel Catán and Marcela Feuntes-Berain’s Florencia en el Amazonas is the first opera in Spanish to appear on the Met stage in over a century. Such a dubious distinction usually says more about the institution than it does about the work—begging the question of why it’s taken this long when opera in the Spanish language has been around for centuries. But as the cry of “opera, en español!” that went up from the first balcony confirms, such firsts and firsts-in-a-while are still vitally important to audiences, who want very much to hear their language, musical styles and literary genres represented on the opera stage.
Catàn’s 1996 opera, which follows an opera diva, the plucky female music writer who adores her, a river spirit and other sundry characters on a steamboat journey up the Amazon River basin to Manaus that leaves them all transformed, though in various ways, seems a perfect choice to bring Spanish-language opera into the mainstream.
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It’s a true grand opera with familiar-feeling characters who appear in enchanted landscapes that take inspiration from the magical realist works of Latin-American writers like Gabriel García Marquez. In this production by Mary Zimmerman (who won a Tony in 1996 for another play replete with transformation: Ovid’s Metamorphosis), Catán’s opera bursts into life in resplendent—dare I say magical?—fashion, giving us one of the Met’s most visually stunning and emotionally affecting outings of recent seasons.
Florencia sees its characters at inflection points
Florencia’s return home is also a journey backward into her emotional history—she is haunted by a former lover Cristóbal, who disappeared into the Jungle twenty years before the event. As they approach Manaus, Florencia begins to feel his presence.
Zimmerman’s production takes enchantment seriously, giving it to us in a riotous rainbow of color that cuts right through the relentless drabness of recent Met productions and through into a world where dancers attired as herons, giant water lilies, a school of piranhas or roiling waves that chatter and spin in a landscape that is greener-than-green.
Between set designer Riccardo Hernandéz and projection designer S. Katy Tucker’s stage (which was at once the deck of the riverboat, the river itself and the rainforest) and Ana Kuzmanić’s jaw-dropping costumes, Florencia is a feast for the eyes. Certain visual flourishes—a heron-dancer unfurling his spectacular wings, a puppet alligator that seemed to swim through the stage, the black floor now black river water, the final transfiguration of Florencia—were beautiful enough that tears sprang to my eyes.
The visuals blade, cutting through the relentless gray drabness of recent productions, the commitment to bland realism in libretti and the boring structures of real life. Instead, the world of Florencia is full of splashes of color and magical wonder. I felt like a child. Here, magical realism, which as its paradoxical title suggests, involves realistic settings and characters.