Madison Opera’s “Florencia” demonstrates what opera can be

Special to Channel 3000

Madison Opera’s weekend production of “Florencia en Amazonas” may be the best example of the potential of opera to include all its art forms that we have seen in a long while.

Although we tend to think of opera in terms of music – of sopranos and tenors singing arias and a symphony orchestra keeping things going – opera also depends on costumes and stage sets and lighting and, often, ballet or modern dance.

What makes this production outstanding is the way it integrates all of the arts, so much so that it is difficult to imagine any of them standing alone.

It is a modern opera, composed by Daniel Catan with a libretto my Marcela Fuentes-Berain and first performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 1966.

The story is pretty much a fantasy. An opera diva, Florencia de Grimaldi, is taking an Amazon River boat to Manaus, Brazil, where she hopes to reconnect with her lover, Christobal, left behind years ago when she decided to begin an opera career. Christobal, for some reason, is a butterfly hunter. This really comes in handy for the staging because, even though we never meet Christobal, we see lots and lots of butterflies on stage.

Elizabeth Caballero sings the title role. She has previously been with Madison Opera in “Don Giovanni,” “La Traviata” and “Carmen,” so she’s a favorite here.

Along the way, we meet other lovers.

The boat’s captain, Ashraf Sewailam, is in love with the Amazon. His nephew, Arcadio, Mackenzie Whitney, is in love with a journalist, Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg, though the two are afraid of love.

Alvaro and Paula, Levi Hermandez and Adriana Zabala, a middle-age couple trying to rekindle a marriage, pretty much unsuccessfully, fight through the first act.

The only cast member not in a doomed love affair is Riobolo, Nmon Ford, who is a kind of boat crew member and shaman who calls on river nymphs periodically.

At any rate, the first act introduces everyone and is pretty much depressing, but a huge storm ends the act and, for a while, it seems everyone might be dead. The boat and the river, then, have turned on the captain.

In the second act, however, Rioblo works his magic. The dead are restored and get their priorities straight. All seems well until the boat arrives in Manaus, only to learn a cholera outbreak will keep them from leaving the boat.

The overall sense is that this is the only life we have, so we ought to live it and not constantly run away from it.

The whole thing is a fantasy. In fact, at the end, one can’t be certain whether the entire journey might just have been Florencia’s dream.

It’s not the world’s greatest plot, but that’s where all the art forms become important.

Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith commission Kanopy Dance artistic directors Lisa Thurrell and Robert Cleary to choreograph dance that weaves through the entire two-hour opera. In most operas dance, if included at all, forms kind of an addition.

But it’s hard to imagine this production without the dancers. For one thing, the opera is set on a boat, but the boat, being on stage, doesn’t move. The dancers provide the movement – and the dancers also keep reminding us of the butterflies.

The lighting and stage management, the costumes, everything works so much in harmony that they create the magic that characterizes opera at its best. And because Catan’s score is consistently beautiful, it, basically, has no real arias that stand out from the rest of the music, the music itself lends to this integrated concept.

As does the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which, though not on stage, maintains the spellbinding effect of a very good opera.

The opera will be staged again Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available.

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