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Daniel CATÁN (b.1949)
Florencia en el Amazonas (1996)
An opera in two acts and seventeen scenes to a libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain
Mark S Doss - Riolobo
Ana Maria Martinez - Rosalba
Suzanna Guzmán - Paula
Hector Vasquez - Alvaro
Oren Gradus - Capitán
Patricia Schuman - Florencia
Chad Shelton - Arcadio
Houston Grand Opera Chorus
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra/Patrick Summers
rec. Houston, live performances
ALBANY TROY531/32 [2CDs: 55.44+43.08]

Listeners still on a quest for a modern opera that grips and bends the emotions in much the same way as Puccini did must hear this work.

Daniel Catán was born in Mexico City in 1949. He now lives in Los Angeles and has received a commission for a further opera for Houston Grand Opera. The stage is clearly a maijor theme in his creative life. His two act opera Rappaccini's Daughter was premiered in Mexico City in 1991 (recorded on Newport Classic NPD85623/2 (Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater and in excerpts on Naxos - reviewed here by Paul Shoemaker). There is also the ballet Ausencia de Flores.

Catán writes that the moment of a butterfly's birth is something that has been present in his mind as he composed several of his works. The miraculous transformation into something of great beauty yet is ephemeral on a human scale and of trembling fragility is a powerful concept.

The plot of this opera is set aboard the 'El Dorado' a steamboat plying the Amazon in the early 1900s. The journey is from Leticia in Colombia to Manaus. Riolobo acts as a mysterious narrator/Greek chorus rather like the old man in Sondheim's Into the Woods or the elemental chorus of the sea and the wind in Rutland Boughton's masterpiece The Queen of Cornwall. Florencia, a diva returning after years of triumph in the world's great opera houses (She recalls singing at La Scala in scene 2) to sing in Manaus, travels incognito. For Florencia this is to be a mystical transformational journey and the opera builds inexorably to that moment of butterfly-epiphany.

The opera begins bright with light and with the ecstatic rapture and pulsating chatter of birdsong. The avian element recurs in tr. 6 CD1 and on CD2 tr.5 at 8.13. This music has the exaltation of Martinů and the exoticism of Villa-Lobos without the hectic vertical congestion that can afflict the latter's jungle works. The music is intensely emotional in Catán's sincerely adopted Puccinian approach. Listen to the towering Scarpia-like call at the end of Act I. Then again in scene 2 at 7.40 there is a cresting tension rising to climactic Turandot-like heights at 8.29. Florencia's first aria attracts well deserved applause in this live performance. The audience, by the way, is well behaved throughout except for some over-eager insensitivity at the very end of the opera.

In scene 3 Catán mobilises an orchestral chatter that is part-Janáček, part-Petrushka laced with the blackest portrayal of dread (2.03). Speaking of the orchestral contribution I must also praise the great Houston orchestra. It has lustrous strings as well as brass with plentiful impact and grit.

I detected no weak links among the cast. In particular Patricia Schuman is magnificent. Listen to her in scene 4 at 2.48 where her high note, long-held with power and without tremor, is fully satisfying as is the summit moment in scene 8 at 2.50. She also masters the softer effects as at tr.1, CD2, 5.40 where she sings with touching tenderness. The vocal ensemble in tr.5 (CD2) is full of turbulence and superbly calculated complexity. Again Puccini comes to mind but the psychology at work here also reminds me of Sondheim and Paul Gemigniani in their grandest manner.

Act 2 emerges from the very same dogged foreboding into which the end of Act 1 sank. This is gradually sloughed off by the full panoply of a Maserati of an orchestra - including a wind machine. I have mentioned Puccini as an influence but there is also a touch of Korngold about this vibrantly lush and imaginative writing.

In tr.2 at 1.55 and 5.10 Catán serves up the most exalted and fluent love music with unflinching conviction and eloquent sincerity. If Daphnis can be glimpsed in the orchestral foreword to Act 1 it is the Odysseyan homecoming of the final moments of Ma Mère l'Oye that rises triumphant in scene 2 - that irresistible intoxicant of hesitation on the brink of fulfiment. The grandeur of the river can be heard on CD2, tr.6 at 4.33. This score is not short of nature magic.

Schuman delivers yet more climactic excitement in tr.1 CD1 at 1.30 - almost Callas like. However the show is by no means entirely Schuman's. In tr.5 listen to the quiet brass snarl against the barking wonder of the great solo by Mark S Doss as Riolobo.

One irritant is the behaviour of the audience, just at the end of the opera. They succumb to crass insensitivity by not allowing the score to fade into held silence. Instead one or two predatory 'cheerleaders' incite applause before the last note has sounded into nothingness. There are no marks here for being first out of the slips.

The work is sung in Spanish but the booklet has a parallel translation into English. The notes are extremely helpful and include an essay by the composer and the librettist as well as artist profiles. It is a pity that I was unable to find the date and location of the recording sessions.

I am grateful to Walter Simmons for recommending the work to me. I doubt that I would have heard it otherwise and that would have been my loss.

This is a potently Puccinian opera and is not to be missed by those thirsty for mystery, grandeur and emotional staying power.

Rob Barnett



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