In L.A. Opera's Florencia en el Amazonas, a Boat Ride Leads to a Secret Concert (GO!)

Verónica VillarroelEXPAND
Verónica Villarroel
Photo by Craig T. Mathew

They really like to give things a good spin at L.A. Opera.

In Barrie Kosky’s recent reimagining of Bluebeard’s Castle, the doomed newlywed heroine was cast adrift on a circular ice floe that rotated slowly like a funereal carousel as it took her through several dark chambers of horrors. Now, with director Francesca Zambello’s latest presentation of Florencia en el Amazonas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the stage whirls again, albeit in a more purposefully enchanting fashion.

The set is a replica of a paddle-boat steamer, which tacks this way and that amid Mark McCullough’s watery lighting, Robert Israel’s green scenery and S. Katy Tucker’s luminous projections as if it were fending off the currents of the Amazon. A quintet of artful dancers evokes the exuberant, splashing movements of water. Each turn of the ship reveals a new angle and glimpse into the staterooms and lives of the characters, who are taking the steamer downriver to Manaus, Brazil, where they hope to witness a rare concert by a reclusive opera singer, Florencia Grimaldi (portrayed by Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel). The diva is actually hidden in their midst, hoping to reclaim the lost lover she left behind in the jungle when she sought fame in Europe.

Befitting the characters’ romantic interplay and the verdant setting, the late Daniel Catán’s music is florid and sentimental — perhaps too much so. Melodies often start out promisingly before disappearing into a sentimental mush of cinematic strings and harp glissandi. Nonetheless, there are some memorable passages, especially when the captain’s nephew, Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), and his new love interest, Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa), weave their voices within the argument of a warring couple (Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Gordon Hawkins). The quartet’s rousing refrain (“Esa es la diferencia”) has a certain majestic grandeur.

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As guided by conductor Grant Gershon, the orchestra gives full body and vibrancy even to Catán’s most saccharine lines. The singers are uniformly excellent. Chacón-Cruz, building on his charismatic turn earlier this fall as Alfredo in L.A. Opera’s La Traviata, harmonizes warmly with David Pittsinger, who plays the captain. Herrera exudes a wounded intensity, while baritone José Carbó, as the river spirit Ríolobo, has an expansive, powerful presence.

Whereas Oropesa’s voice is lovely yet delicate, Villarroel’s singing comes out of a soft nowhere with the force of a sudden tornado. The diva’s porcelain-tone solo at the end is as breathtakingly gorgeous as the gigantic, diaphanous butterfly wings that descend from the rafters and surround her.

L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. dwntwn.; Sun., Nov. 30; Wed., Dec. 10; Sun., Dec. 14; Thurs., Dec. 18; and Sat., Dec. 20. (213) 972-8001,

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