13 March 2006
All for Love
About a year ago I went up to Seattle to hear Florencia en el Amazonas. I had been up to Seattle twice before, both times for the Ring Cycle; this time I just went for the weekend, drawn by the casting of the redoubtable Nathan Gunn. I saw the first two performances. Nothing was on at the theaters that I wanted to see and it was too early for baseball, so then I came home. The opera (Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan, a contemporary Mexican composer) is sort of "inspired by" Marquez rather than "based on". Apparently he generally opposes putting his stories into other media (such as film or the stage) but he allowed them to borrow characters and situations as a starting point and the librettist is a pupil of his and was recommended by him (though since I saw Florencia I have heard an opera based directly on The Autumn of the Patriarch, so go figure -- maybe Marquez changed his mind; he's entitled to). The basic story is that a famous singer travels up the Amazon to sing at an opera house in her native place but also to find a butterfly hunter she had loved years before. It turns out he has died in the meantime but she realizes at the end that she is still singing to him and she mystically turns into a butterfly. This is right after a cholera epidemic is announced, so I think it's up to individual interpretation whether she lives and has had a spiritual moment, or dies and is reunited with her love, or even actually turns into a butterfly of the rare type he had been searching for. There's also a young couple (the captain's nephew and a woman writing a biography of the singer though she doesn't realize until late in the voyage that she has been traveling with the diva all along) who end up falling in love with each other and a quarrelsome middle-aged couple (to my amusement, the audience at both performances I heard clearly related best to them) that ends up rediscovering their love after he is swept overboard -- the wife realizes she did love him and the river returns him. And there's also a sailor, Riolobo, on board ship (Nathan Gunn), who functions as sort of a combination of Figaro (always arranging and commenting) and Ariel (a spirit connected to larger elements of Nature). He does get a kick-ass entry and exit during the storm that ends the first act, when he descends from the skies as a river god (dressed in a sort of Aztec loincloth and wings -- Gunn is very goodlooking and gets asked to strip a lot, something Pavarotti never had to do -- wow, I'm just trying to picture Luciano descending from the air -- that would be some harness -- talk about Supersize Me!), sings his aria, and then flies (literally) off stage. Pretty spectacular. But as beautiful and even moving as the work is, I can't help feeling the libretto has a major weakness: it's all about Love and how it affects the characters' lives, but Love is only presented as a positive force. The love affairs are happy, the quarrelsome get a second chance, even death can't divide lovers as they unite mystically. There's no one there who is destroyed or hurt or ignored by Love. This is where magical realism turns into wish fulfillment and becomes kind of a prettiness -- look! pink rain! and everyone's in love! The diva has a mystical reunion with her love, of whom she has only happy memories; the young lovers decide they will fall in love after all (as if they had a choice!); the quarrelsome middle-aged couple realizes in the face of death and separation that they really love each other -- and then death and separation are annihilated and they're reunited happily and magically. Everyone is happily united at the end except Riolobo, who's the best-looking guy anyway and also gets to be a river god. Where are the people destroyed by love? or even just ignored? What are probably my two favorite operas, Tristan and Nozze di Figaro, are both all about love also but it's very clear there's a price to pay. And you may feel it's worth paying, but you do pay. And even though characters like King Mark and Marzellina may enlarge their spirits by forgiving those in love who have betrayed or ignored them, it's clear Love hasn't given them what they wanted. So I couldn't help feeling that Florencia, beautiful and truly moving as it is, ends up avoiding the darker aspects of its subject. It's as if Das Rheingold ended just with the gods marching into Valhalla -- it would be beautiful and stirring, but when you also hear the cries of the Rhine Daughters and see Fasolt's dead body, it gives you a more complex view of the gods' triumph. But I would certainly be happy to hear Florencia again, which is not true of all other operas. The music is very attractive, but unfortunately it is the sort that gets described as "accessible," which is code for "no dissonance or other unseemly innovations will shock your 19th century ears." But I liked it anyway.