Pittsburgh Opera journeys to the ‘magical realism’ of the Amazon | TribLIVE.com
Theater & Arts

Pittsburgh Opera journeys to the ‘magical realism’ of the Amazon

Courtesy of David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera
Alexandra Loutsion (left) portrays Florencia Grimaldi and Craig Verm is Riolobo in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas,” Nov. 9-17 ib the Benedum Center.
Courtesy of David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera
The Pittsburgh Opera production of “Florencia en el Amazonas” includes, from left, cast members Alexandra Loutsion (Florencia Grimaldi), Craig Verm (Riolobo), Nathan Gunn (Alvaro), Sandra Piques Eddy (Paula).

Popularity is the rarest of accomplishments for contemporary opera, but Mexican composer Daniel Catán achieved it when he wrote “Florencia en el Amazonas.”

It has been performed successfully around the world, and has elicited enthusiastic praise from performers, audiences and even critics since its premiere in 1996 at Houston Grand Opera. The story is loosely based on a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Catán said he “set out to write beautiful music for the story of a journey to transcendent love; it concerns all of us who have lived love with all its intricacies, subtleties, wretchedness, and glorious happiness.”

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” Nov. 9-17 at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center. It will be the company’s first Spanish language opera, and will be presented with surtitles, as the company does with operas in Italian, French and other foreign languages.

Magical realism

The quality of the music is obviously the most critical factor in an opera’s success, but it is built on the libretto. Marcela Fuentes-Berain, a pupil of Marquez, wrote the libretto based on Marquez’ 1985 novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

The plot includes elements of “magical realism,” for which Marquez is famous.

The opera is about opera singer Florencia Grimaldi’s boat trip from Colombia to Brazil via the Amazon River. She hopes to find the love of her youth, who hunts exotic butterflies in the forests of the Amazon.

Romance is a pressing issue for others on the boat, too, including a middle-aged couple seeking to rekindle their affections, and a younger man and woman who are excited by their passion — but wary of it.

“From the first moments the orchestra plays, you are transported to a very tonal world, reminiscent of Puccini,” says baritone Craig Verm, referring to the composer of “La Bohème,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.”

“Everything is awash with beautiful, lush sounds,” he says.

Verm, a Pittsburgh native, starred in the opera’s presentation of “Don Giovanni” last month. In “Florencia” he’ll play Riolobo, “an intermediary between the real world and the magical or spiritual world.”

”There are different physical manifestations where I get to show that through arm gestures or stage mechanics. I can kind of walk on water,” he says, “and at one point I turn into a butterfly and get to fly above the stage, singing an aria hanging from the rafters.”

‘Wonderful arias’

Opera music director Antony Walker will be conducting “Florencia” for the first time and loves it.

“The music is so voluptuous and creates this magical realism world so beautifully in sound,” Walker says. “I love the fact that Daniel writes so beautifully for voice. The composer understands how singers work and wrote wonderful arias and ensembles.”

Alexandra Loutsion is returning to Pittsburgh Opera to sing Florencia, a role she first performed in 2015 in Arizona.

“It is interesting to come back to it now,” she says. “I came to it as my career was starting to take off and now, being in the throes of my career, I can relate to her a little more now.”

She says she finds Catán’s writing for her role very challenging.

“He asks for a lot of full voice in the middle and then goes up to these gorgeous pianissimo high notes. A lot of people call him the Spanish Puccini,” she says. “I feel that’s maybe the overarching view, but he also throws in elements of bel canto, of Strauss and of Wagner.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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