“Florencia in the Amazon” is a rambling dream of an opera. Its lush, evocative music makes you feel you are somewhere you know, or hearing something you almost know, or experiencing something you are just about to know, if only you could put your finger on it. Event follows on event, all with some deeper meaning, you sense, if only you could figure it out. At times, you feel like you’re struggling to run forward, going through the motions but making no headway, frozen in place. And at the end, you’re left with a final image that seems significant, and that makes you want to get back into the experience and see what else it had to tell you. Also like a dream: It’s not as substantial as it looks.
On Saturday night, “Florencia,” in a production that Francesca Zambello adapted from her 1996 world premiere staging in Houston, opened the Washington National Opera’s season at the Kennedy Center. Although the opera has generally been accounted as a success, and popular with audiences, and although Placido Domingo, WNO’s last general director, was a strong champion of its composer, Daniel Catán, “Florencia” has taken nearly 20 years to get to Washington. Catán, who died unexpectedly in 2011 at age 62 while in Austin for rehearsals of his later opera “Il Postino,” once pointed out in a public address that even the most feted new opera has only a small chance of actually reaching a wider audience, because everything in this field is booked so far in advance that it takes years for a new work to show up at a theater near you. (“Florencia” was, however, performed by the Maryland Opera Studio in 2010).
Then again, “popular with audiences” is relative. On Saturday, “Florencia” got warm applause from an opening-night crowd already familiar with the mores and music of opera. Newcomers to the genre, however, might be put off by the stasis of both sound and setting (the whole thing takes place on a boat) — not to mention the five dancers who keep running and leaping across the stage, representing the River and the Native Population in equal, heavy-footed measure. I come down somewhere in between embrace and outright rejection. Catán’s score is better than simply derivative — especially as conducted with assurance by Carolyn Kuan in her WNO debut — but it certainly is steeped in Puccini in a lot of places (which you may or may not see as an advantage). And Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s libretto, striving to evoke the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, has trouble giving the characters enough room to grow beyond the stuff of archetype and/or plot device, although it energetically disseminates that favorite operatic truism: Love Conquers All.
In practical terms, the opera’s setting is an advantage for small companies — you need only a single set. From a dramatic viewpoint, being stuck on a boat all night can be a challenge for the audience. The set designer Robert Israel’s boat turned and twisted on the stage to show itself from every possible angle, while video projections at the back of the stage created a dreamy fantasy-landscape backdrop. Dancers entered at every big orchestral interlude, as if to hold people’s attention, although they often distracted from some of the evening’s best music.
Another dramatic challenge is bringing life to pawnlike characters. The Captain (David Pittsinger) and his nephew Arcadio (Patrick O’Halloran) are steering a boat bound for Manaus, a city in the Amazon jungle with a fabled opera house (this part is actually true). The passengers include a married couple in a rut, Paula and Álvaro (Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Michael Todd Simpson), a lovely young writer named Rosalba (Andrea Carroll), who is obsessed with writing a book about the great opera singer Florencia Grimaldi; and Florencia herself (Christine Goerke).
The cast, and the audience, are guided by Ríolobo, a river god, who appears now as narrator, now as crew member, now as a ferocious birdlike figure swooping in from the flies at the height of the requisite climactic storm scene. This role was sung capably but slightly dryly by Norman Garrett, a recent alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program whose strong voice never seemed to open out in this role and was consequently sometimes hard to hear. Similarly, Pittsinger’s Captain came off as atypically colorless, with only brief flashes of this veteran singer’s onstage warmth. If your opera straitjackets singers who on their own tend to have plenty of charisma, you need to take a good look at how you’ve written your characters and their music, lush though it be.
Fabiola Herrera and Simpson, however, had no trouble singing effectively, she with a dark, warm voice and he (last heard here in “Showboat” as Gaylord Ravenal) with slightly effete boredom that gave way to ardor as the couple gradually realized that they truly loved each other. As Rosalba, Carroll showed her bright voice to good effect, while O’Halloran (a current Domingo-Cafritz artist) was perfectly capable in a stock romantic part. This soprano and tenor are, of course, fated to come together, helped by a push from Florencia, whom Rosalba, for all her hero-worship, fails to recognize when she sees her in person. (This is actually a nice touch, not to mention a dig at the pedantry of biographers.)
Florencia, for her part, is searching for the lost love of her youth, who vanished hunting butterflies in the jungle; she ends up in a kind of ecstatic transcendence, a “Liebesleben” corresponding to Isolde’s “Liebestod,” transformed (literally or figuratively) into a butterfly with huge silken wings. Goerke, who is being primed to emerge as the next big American Brünnhilde, has presence and voice to burn, and she managed to bring some freshness to a part that is stifling in its archetypal Greatness. But she seemed, on Saturday, in her first performance of this role, slightly out of her element, particularly on her top notes, which sounded a little thin and sometimes errant in comparison with her full lower register. She may come into her own as the run progresses. She may even — though this is less likely — have a chance to sing the part again.
“Florencia in the Amazon” has four more performances through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Melody Moore will sing the title role Wednesday.