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.