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Review: 'Charmingly Strange' Spanish-Language 'Florencias en el Amazonas' at LA Opera

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Considering how many popular operas have been set in Spain, and the similarities among all the Romance languages, it's surprising not to find a few Spanish-language works in the standard repertory along with all the Italian and French classics. Other than a few isolated pieces, though, opera never really caught on among Spanish or Latin American composers before the 1960s.

Mexican composer Daniel Catán, who was among the first to devote himself fully to the operatic genre in Spanish, saw two of his works performed by LA Opera before he died three years ago. One of these, Il Postino, had its world premiere here in 2010 with Placido Domingo singing the lead role of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The other, Catán's charmingly strange Florencias en el Amazonas, conceived as an homage to the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was introduced to LA audiences in 1997 in a production that's now being revived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with three more performances through next weekend.

The opera isn't directly based on any particular work by Marquez, but Catán and director Francesca Zambello met with him to work out an original story that Marquez's student Marcela Fuentes-Berain executed in a libretto. The action takes place aboard an Amazon River steamboat called the El Dorado, where the romantic dramas of various passengers and crew members play out. The central figure is a reclusive diva, Florencia Grimaldi (Veronica Villarroel), who is traveling in search of her long-lost lover Cristobal.

There's also a young woman, Rosalba (Listte Oropesa), who's writing a biography of Grimaldi, but doesn't know she's also on board, as well as the callow, disgruntled crew member Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), nephew of the ship's captain, who establishes a mutual affection with Rosalba even as the two of them refuse to fall in love. A rich, older couple, Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins), can't stand each other until tragedy befalls them. Working alongside the captain (David Pittsinger), the ship's mate is also a mysterious river spirit named Riolobo (José Carbó), who changes guise whenever dangerous conditions present themselves.

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Catán's music is something of a throwback to the grand Romantic tradition (though some percussion-heavy orchestral moments create a distinctively South American sense of place), often emulating Puccini in its emotionally evocative solo arias and ensemble pieces. Rosalba and Arcadio's second-act declaration of their non-love for one another is wonderfully ironic in that it sounds just like a perfectly idiomatic 19th-century opera love duet. An earlier quartet featuring both couples captures the contrasting feelings of the young reluctant lovebirds and their older quarreling counterparts. Grimaldi's lamentations in both acts over the lover she long ago abandoned are highlighted by sweeping orchestral accompaniments which never approach bombast under the baton of LA Opera's choral director, Grant Gershon.

Scenery designer Robert Israel places the El Dorado on the Chandler stage's rotating table, which allows successive interactions to take place in different spaces on board as it turns between scenes. S. Katy Tucker's projections on an upstage screen, behind the boat, create a nifty illusion that it is actually traveling down the river as the opera continues.

The all-around excellent cast and the visually transporting work of the production team both enhance the atmospheric charge of Catán's opera and powerfully deliver us into its tropical setting, where Grimaldi and her cohort embark on a fateful journey of self-realization. It's a magical ride and a tale worthy of the peerless author who inspired it.

LA Opera's Florencias en el Amazonas plays this Sunday at 2 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday the 21st at 7:30 p.m. Full-price tickets available for purchase on laopera.com; discount tickets are sometimes available on Goldstar.