While opera's future is still being argued, its past continues to provide a comforting refuge for contemporary composers of the cautious stripe. Nothing in Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas," first performed 12 months ago by the Houston Grand Opera and given its West Coast premiere by the L.A. Opera this past weekend, would have shocked opera-goers a century ago --- nothing, that is, except the broad discrepancy between gesture and substance that comes across as a pallid misrepresentation of its hot-blooded operatic ancestry. Marcela Fuentes-Berain's libretto, billed as "An Homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez," tells of operatic diva Florencia heading down the Amazon to sing once again in the opera house at Manaos --- which moviegoers will recognize as the same implausible edifice that figures in Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" --- where she had once loved and lost. On the way, the ship is becalmed then rescued by benign airborne spirits; it reaches its ultimate destination, but cannot land its passengers due to a cholera outbreak.

Meanwhile Florencia herself, traveling in disguise, doles out a clutch of endless-seeming arias about her past loves and current frustrations. “The light gives me wings,” she proclaims, as an evocation — at considerable remove — of the “magic realism” of Garcia Marquez’ masterful story-telling. Her shipmates — a squabbling couple, an amorous couple, an attendant spirit, named Riolobo, whose main task seems to be to ease the story out of its frequent dead ends — fulfill the slice-of-life plot gadgetry familiar all the way from Noah’s ark to “Ship of Fools.”

“Florencia” sailed into the L.A. Music Center under propitious circumstances: the local premiere of a new opera by a Mexican composer; the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by a U.S. opera company (three companies, in fact, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle); the first new score produced by the L.A. Opera in nearly a decade. It drew a cheering opening-night audience, and served them with a lavish show: Robert Israel’s tricky, multilevel mockup of an Amazon riverboat; Paul Pyant’s iridescent lighting designs; director Francesca Zambello’s imaginative mix of mythic and real in her stagefuls of dancing sprites.

At the bottom line, however, lies the sad news that Catan’s opera is beyond salvation. Spanish in language but Romantic-Italian in musical manner, the work lacks the one element that maintains the life-force in the operas of Puccini and his cohorts: a gift for soaring melody that goes home with the audience at evening’s end. A mostly splendid cast — longtime L.A. Opera stalwarts Rodney Gilfry, Greg Fedderly and Suzanna Guzman, with soprano Sheri Greenwald in her company debut — managed the time-worn phrases of Catan’s music with appropriate skill. Roderick Brydon’s conducting gave off the illusion of propulsion even when the music suggested otherwise.

In a season that has already offered one Puccinian masterpiece (last month’s “La Boheme”) and one inferior Puccini ripoff (the forgettable “Fedora” that opened the season), Catan’s morose epic is, among its other sins, redundant.

Florencia en el Amazonas.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center Reviewed Oct. 5, 1997; runs through Oct. 18.

Production

The Los Angeles Opera presents Daniel Catan's two-act opera, text by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, in a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and the Seattle Opera. Conductor, Roderick Brydon, with the L.A. Opera Orchestra and Chorus; director, Francesca Zambello; designers, Robert Israel, Catherine Zuber, Paul Pyant. Running time: 2 hours, 5 min.

Cast

Sheri Greenwald (Florencia), Suzanna Guzman (Paula), Greg Fedderly (Arcadio), Rodney Gilfry (Riolobo), with Cedric Berry, Yvonne Gonzales, Hector Vasquez and Gabor Andrasy
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