By John Patrick Ford

Spanish opera about the Americas is a rare topic in the opera repertory. San Diego Opera has been a champion to serve its Latino audience and brought a “classic” Spanish production to the Civic Theatre on March 17.

The setting is the Amazon River where an opera star is returning to her roots and also searching for her missing lover. The deepest mysteries of the Amazon jungle were set to music by Mexican composer Daniel Catán in his third opera Florencia en el Amazonas. Staged on a river boat passing through some of the darkest, wild
stretches of the Amazon, the passengers experience some spiritual awakenings as strange creatures emerge in the hazy moonlight.

The jungle in Florencia has a similar whispering sound created by oboes, flutes, harp, special drums and a marimba applying a Brazilian rhythm sound. It is the sound of a tropical storm and the flow of the river. An African drum captures the crisp rhythms of tropical rain and rumbles of an Amazon storm. The jungle becomes an extension of the state of mind. These were the insights written by Catán for the program notes for the 1996 Los Angeles Opera production.

The opera is not just a reverie of sound. There is a dramatic plot involving a famous opera diva returning to her home city for a recital. She travels incognito and mixes with the other passengers who create their own subplots of relationships while the steamer glides up the river.

Catán’s compositions are often compared to Debussy and Puccini with some Richard Strauss overtones. After the premiere of Florencia, a German music critic called it “warmed over verismo.” Perhaps that is why Catán is rapidly expanding in the contemporary repertory. There is a definite similarity between Florencia and Strauss who ended his opera Daphne with the girl by the well transforming into a tree.

Other passengers on the voyage include a couple that is finding a relationship and another married couple that is losing it. An antagonistic woman journalist is aboard to interview the diva for a book after her performance at the end of the voyage. Because Florencia was traveling incognito, the writer was openly candid with the background about her subject until she discovers Florencia’s real identity.

There is a severe tropical storm that disables the steamboat. While cast adrift, the strange jungle creatures emerge to cast their spell on the passengers. At this time Florencia doubts she will find her lover Cristóbal in the dense wilderness and begins her transformation to join him spiritually.

As the river boat reaches its destination, an epidemic of cholera forces the quarantine of the passengers on board the ship. This seems to be the only connection to the novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” on which the libretto was based.

In the end Florencia becomes so spellbound with the mysteries of the jungle and her confinement on ship that she symbolically morphs into a butterfly to join the spirit of her lost lover. That is what the magic of opera is all about.