Los Angeles Opera October 15, 1997 KDB October 26, 1997
The LA Opera's production of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas" tells the story of the great opera diva, Florencia Grimaldi, who returns to Manaus, Brazil in search of her long lost lover Cristobal. The action takes place, for the most part, on the river boat "El Dorado" en route from Leticia, Colombia. The boat turns at different angles on the stage, showing different cabins, and gives a sense of motion and connects the various characters.
We have Paula and Alvaro. Their marriage has grown old and dull. They seek renewal by journeying to hear Florencia sing. Mostly, however, they bicker. She asks "Do you remember our first day?" He answers "No" and her look shoots daggers. The Captain's nephew has been virtually conscripted into a sailor's life. He hates the water, and yearns to fly. The young journalist Rosalba is writing a biography of the great, reclusive Diva. Florencia, traveling incognito, is absorbed in her own thoughts of Cristobal, the butterfly hunter. Twenty years before, they were in love, but she went to Europe to seek fame and fortune, while he went into the jungle in search of the world's rarest butterfly, the Emerald Muse. Her success has not brought happiness. She says "I am not only my name" and now, she seeks the love she sacrificed to ambition.
Rodney Gilfry is Riolobo, a character who embodies the exotic spirituality and mysticism of the Amazon. He's in human form, at least most of the time, but assumes other forms. We get the feeling that he's a part of the jungle. This character doesn't really lend itself to Gilfry's usual playful intimacy, like Figaro or Don Giovanni, where he lets you in on his little secrets and schemes. He brings you in, just a little as we get ready to board the boat, with a gesture here or there but as soon as we're under way, the charismatic baritone takes control and is a commanding presence. Whether silently at the helm, or as the winged spirit who drops from the sky to implore the river spirits to not destroy their world as flashing red light, thunder, and sheets of pink sparkling rain pound the "El Dorado." It runs aground threatening to shatter like the lives of the passengers.
"Florencia en el Amazonas" is also about renewal, and the attainment of the true values of love, faith, and loyalty. After the storm Riolobo offers a song of gratitude to the river. Yvonne Gonzales is a sensuous Rosalba as she and Greg Fedderly's Arcadio coyly dance around their growing love for each other before falling into their passionate duet at the end. Paula laments Alvaro's death in the storm. She has been scared that she would lose herself in their love, and realizes that her pride had blocked her happiness. Alvaro awakens from death. He tells her, "On our first day you wore white linen and a blue handkerchief."
We have dancers as furtive river spirits who dance around the boat throughout. Sherri Greenawald's Florencia Grimaldi sings her final great aria to Cristobal, as the spirits fly up and give her huge wings as a light beams down from heaven on her and she transforms in a swollen climax of music worthy of Isolde or the transformation of Parsifal.
The music of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas" is, quite simply, some of the very best I've heard composed in this century. He doesn't fall into the trap of almost all 20th century composers of thinking that originality is an end in itself. His music captures the evocative impressionism of the Amazon and it's inherent sensuality and spirituality. He's influenced heavily by Debussy and Ravel, but his own experience takes him far beyond that. If nothing else, Catan, unlike the others, is an opera composer. He brings life to his singers and this is entirely a work for the stage. He creates the illusion of the suspension of time and space like Wagner does in Tristan and Parsifal. He has no need for the clattering dissonance of noises that sound like none you've ever heard or would want to hear, but creates a unified whole that is melodious, lush, mysterious, and intriguing. You have to devote thought to understand it, but you don't have to work to like it. It's eminently listenable.
In the hands of Daniel Catan opera becomes the first of the arts. The French painter Eugene Delacroix defined great art "ingenious artifice that expresses or pleases." Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas" is the embodiment of that definition. Roderick Bryden led the orchestra and captured all of the impressionistic nuances and mysterious sensuality in the West Coast premiere of this sparkling jewel at the LA Opera.
LA Opera September 10, 1997 KDB September 13, 1997
The Los Angeles Opera's production of Umberto Giordano's "Fedora" features lavish sets and costumes from around the turn of the last century. We open in Count Vladimir's room. There's a big window for the backdrop, with an old stone palace in the background. We shift as the backdrop is replaced by the elegant drawing room of late 19th century Russian nobility, with beautiful antique furniture. When the Count dies, we revert to the window in his room, as snow falls in front of the palace.
All three acts have the same effect with Paris, then the interior ball room for the second act, and a beautiful backdrop of the Swiss Alps, with a lake in the foreground for the third act. When the Count dies Fedora remarks about how good, faithful, and honest he is. This sets the stage for the later action, in which he's shown to be quite the opposite.
In Act 2, De Siriex sings of the virtues of Russian women. It's a mass of contradictions as the Russian woman is revealed to be the ideal woman. He sings it to the coquettish Countess Olga, who responds that women are like champagne, it fizzles, then it's gone. Susannah Waters is a frothy Olga, who always shows up when and where she's wanted least, then proceeds to dominate everything with a look, a gesture, until Fedora dismisses her as a "scatter-brain." Richard Stillwell's De Siriex is the steadying influence in this cast of intensely tragic and ridiculous characters. In addition to his narration on Olga, he also tells us of the fate of Loris' family as we build to the towering conclusion of Act 3.
Maria Ewing and Placido Domingo as Fedora and Loris, can't be beat. She gets Loris to confess at the party, to a wonderful piano accompaniment in one of several powerful duets, before being totally crushed at the end. Maria Ewing is one of the finest singing actresses of our generation, and as Fedora, she's commandingly statuesque, sly, but vulnerable. Domingo is Domingo. This is a role that interests him, and he has to be at his best to keep up with Ewing. He's passionately in love, we see his vulnerability as he speaks of Vanda, and is hard and cold before he melts at the end. Placido Domingo has performed 111 roles, more than any other tenor in the history of opera. He is as much of a master at selecting and retiring from these roles, as he is at performing them, and this is what makes him the greatest tenor ever. He's totally involved in his roles, instead of simply singing a few over and over. When he has nothing more to say about a character, he retires it and moves on to another. This is true greatness.
One of the more interesting touches comes in several places, including the end, when an off-stage voice or chorus, accompanied by a zither, adds a very supernatural effect.
"Fedora" is a "Russian opera" composed by an Italian, in much the same way as "Carmen" is a "Spanish opera" composed by a Frenchman. We have the dark tragedy, permeated by a melodic false hope. In "La Boheme" the characters experience real joy. None of that here. We have some light moments that relax the tension, but this is tragedy from start to finish. None of that Italian sun, and Giordano is to be admired for this. He has found an element of the universal that is entirely foreign to him.
Edward Downes conducts this powerful production of Umberto Giordano's "Fedora" at the Los Angeles Opera continuing Sunday the 14th at 2 p.m., Wednesday, the 17th at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m. For the KDB bus trip on September 20, Placido Domingo will be replaced by Craig Sirianni in this searing production of "Fedora" at the Los Angeles Opera.