Fall preview: From ‘Florencia in the Amazon’ to ‘Dragon Rhyme,’ fantasy resounds in D.C.


The Cincinnati Opera's 2008 production of "Florencia in the Amazon." (Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera)
September 5, 2014

Fantasy in opera? The canon features dozens of fairy tales of water sprites (“Rusalka”) and princes (“The Magic Flute”), giants and dragons (Wagner’s “Ring”), in which music swirls around and buoys the plots of magical stories. In the 1990s, the Mexican composer Daniel Catán wrote an opera that’s steeped in a dreamy magical realism evocative of the works of García Márquez: “Florencia in the Amazon.” It takes the time-honored allegorical trope of a boat journey down a river into the wilderness, flecked with glints of reality. The title character is a world-famous opera singer going to sing at the opera house in Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The opera house exists, large and beautiful and isolated and improbable, and had a number of cameos in novels and films (“Fitzcarraldo”) before Catán’s opera got to it.

The Washington National Opera is opening its season with “Florencia” and for the title role has snared Christine Goerke, who in the past couple of years has become acknowledged as today’s reigning American dramatic soprano (as she showed in her NSO appearance last spring). The company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, is taking on the direction herself, adapting the world-premiere production she directed in Houston in 1996 for the Kennedy Center stage. Carolyn Kuan makes her WNO debut on the podium.

Catán, alas, died before he could realize his own fantasy: an opera that would become part of the mainstream cultural dialogue in this country. But that, as he said in a 2010 speech, was an indictment of a system that promotes new work only slowly — so slowly that an acclaimed opera like “Florencia,” despite successful productions (including one at the University of Maryland Opera Studio in 2010) and support from opera administrators around the country (including, very much, Plácido Domingo), is only now making its way to WNO for the first time. (Sept. 20-28, the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House.)

Where “Florencia” offers a Latin American take on fantasy, Chen Yi’s “Dragon Rhyme” mingles Western instrumental sounds with the idiom of her native China. The image of the dragon, the composer says in her notes to the piece, is “auspicious, fresh and vivid”; she has worked that idea into a two-part work that takes musical material — based on intervals from the Beijing Opera — and offers it two different ways. The piece is on a program of the always innovative University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, along with a brand-new work by American composer Alvin Singleton. (Nov. 7, the Clarice Smith Center, Dekelboum Concert Hall.)

“Alice in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll’s inimitable fantasy, has inspired a good number of composers: Think David Del Tredici and Unsuk Chin. Irving Fine, a 20th-century American composer, wrote a couple of sets of “Alice” arrangements for chorus that introduced at least one young singer, this writer, to contemporary American work. The Library of Congress is celebrating the centenary of this often overlooked figure (dubbed “neoclassical”) in December with a four-day series of talks and promising-looking concerts, including a concert with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Chiara String Quartet introducing a new piece by the wonderful American composer Jefferson Friedman, and the Library of Congress debut of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, which includes, of course, a set of the “Alice” songs. (Dec. 2-6, the Library of Congress.)

Christine Goerke, star of the Washington National Opera's production of "Florencia in the Amazon." (Arielle Doneson/Arielle Doneson)

Orchestras are among composers’ favorite purveyors of fantasy. One of the seminal works in the genre is Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a dramatic fantasy-turned-fever-dream about the composer’s obsession with a beautiful woman, which leads him (in the music) to drugs, dreams of murder and a witch’s Sabbath with his beloved at the head of the pack. In January, the NSO and Christoph Eschenbach will offer that work, ever popular and ever bizarre, alongside a towering new piece: Wolfgang Rihm’s second piano concerto, co-commissioned by the NSO and performed by soloist Tzimon Barto, which had its world premiere at Salzburg in August to rave reviews. (Jan. 15-17, Kennedy Center Concert Hall.)

A lighter, more sparkling fantasy world is Mendelssohn’s elfin incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer will offer in its entirety on a long-overdue program at Strathmore. “Long-overdue” because this orchestra, despite Fischer’s two-year stint as principal conductor of the NSO, has been inexplicably absent from Washington’s stages on its recent U.S. tours, depriving local audiences of hearing one of the most exciting conductor-ensemble pairings in the orchestral world today. Fischer and the NSO never seemed fully to connect; the BFO, by contrast, is his ensemble (he in fact founded it more than 30 years ago). (Jan. 23, Music Center at Strathmore, Washington Performing Arts.)

The cellist Maya Beiser deliberately defies categorization. Is her program “All Vows,” with its mix of contemporary music and adventurous Led Zeppelin covers, fantasy or reality, classical or rock? Local audiences will be able to say, or not, after her performance in November, but whatever she takes on, Beiser tends to be well worth hearing. (Nov. 8 at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Washington Performing Arts.)

READ MORE:

Dance: Putting a comic spin on ballet

Pop music: We’ll believe it when we see it

Museums: A break from the bustle

Galleries: Art that might send you to the frozen-treats aisle

Movies: Perchance to dream

Theater: There’s magic to do

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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