In 'Florencia,' magical realism meets opera at Maryland Opera Studio

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 6:14 PM

They call it the "white opera." For its stripped-down fall presentation, the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland uses a set of period costumes, made of natural muslin, to allow young singers to get used to working onstage in unfamiliar clothing. But this white, turn-of-the-century garb, slightly ghostly, slightly anodyne, could have been tailor-made for the otherworldly magical realism of "Florencia en el Amazonas," which opened at the Kay Theater of the Clarice Smith Center on Friday night.

Daniel Catán wrote this opera in 1996 as a commission for the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Seattle Opera - the first Spanish-language opera written for a major company in the United States. It was immediately popular with audiences and has done well since, garnering several productions, a recording, and, ultimately, another big-league commission from the Los Angeles Opera: Catán's "Il Postino," starring Placido Domingo, had its premiere in September.

"Florencia," though, is probably the stronger work. Catán writes in a lush, post-Puccini melodic idiom, creating music that's well suited to a story that reaches toward mythic timelessness, with a soupcon of the overblown on the side. Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though not based on a specific work), the opera follows a boat loaded with travelers on a journey down the Amazon to see the great diva Florencia Grimaldi at the legendary opera house in Manaus. None of them realizes that Florencia is on board with them. You might call it a "road opera": It's a symbolic journey; there is a symbolic shipwreck; and in the end all find that what they sought (including Florencia) was on board all along. It's a bit pat, even a bit kitschy, but perfectly satisfying to most opera audiences.

Given the costs of producing opera at a professional company and the attendant risks of low box office receipts for an unfamiliar work, universities have become a natural haven for new opera. "Florencia" has been done by at least two other student programs before Maryland, and it's Maryland's second contemporary work this calendar year, after the world premiere of "Shadowboxer" in April. But young voices are not always the best fit for new works, and this one certainly placed high demands on a couple of promising singers. In the challenging role of Florencia, Bridgette Gan showed a voice capable of gorgeous lyrical singing, but a little taxed by the bigger, Pucciniesque demands of her first aria. Joseph Shadday intermittently showed a solid lyric tenor in another big role as the idealistic young deckhand Arcadio. Monica Soto-Gil offered a fluid mezzo-soprano as half of the bickering married couple who turns out always to have loved each other after all.

Leon Major, the stage director who leads the Maryland Opera Studio, guided a clear production that managed, in spite of its spare resources, not to feel at all makeshift (perhaps because the current financial crunch is forcing so many professional companies to try stripped-down productions as well that we're getting used to filling in the blanks). The journey was shown on a projected map at the back of the stage, while bits of foliage and clusters of origami birds and butterflies evoked the jungle. John Devlin led a modest instrumental ensemble of two pianos, harp, flute, clarinet, and percussion. It was an evening that spoke well for studio opera.

"Florencia" will be presented Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

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