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Into Uncharted Waters

Daniel Catan, Mexico's leading opera composer, offers a new work that provides a glimpse into the next century of the art form.

October 05, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

A famous diva stands on the prow of a riverboat, singing of longing. A married couple dances a Strindbergian duet of recrimination. A pair of young lovers have their first taste of passion's twin, fear. Passengers together, they are Eros' version of the Ages of Man.

Guided by a sage captain and a polymorphous river god, these seekers travel on a journey that draws them deep into the Dionysian heart of the Amazon jungle--and so too into their own souls.

This is the voyage of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas." Inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the much-anticipated work by Mexico's preeminent contemporary composer is the first Mexican opera to be commissioned by an American company. It premiered last year at the Houston Grand Opera and opens tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A long overdue innovation, "Florencia en el Amazonas," with libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, suggests a plan of action for the art form as it readies itself for the next century. It points toward the future of the form in this country--marking the infusion of contemporary Latin culture into American opera--even as it embraces the stylistic strengths of the traditional repertory.

The presentation of "Florencia en el Amazonas" is also a landmark for the L.A. Opera. Coming as it does at a time of rising Latino political clout in the Southland, the presentation of this new work--by a company which has staged relatively few new operas ever--is central to L.A. Opera's efforts to reach out to the Latino community. Indeed, the opening night gala is sponsored by the five-year-old support group Hispanics for L.A. Opera. And Catan himself, who stands for many as a symbol of a new level of Latino presence at the Dorothy Chandler, has been kept busy with a full roster of speeches and appearances.

Yet forward looking as it may be, "Florencia en el Amazonas" also maintains key ties with the past. In particular, Catan's score pays homage to the lyrical, dramatic and thematic qualities that have long made grand opera popular. "Musically, Daniel's style is very romantic, lush and emotionally expressive," says director Francesca Zambello. "Nowadays we are returning to an era when people want music to be something that relates to their emotional world. Daniel writes music that people have an immediate response to. It's quite direct and powerful."

The grand romantic style is only apt, in the composer's view, given that "Florencia en el Amazonas" tackles no less a subject than love in its various existential guises.

"What opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion," says the elegant and chivalrous Catan, over a weekend brunch at his downtown hotel, the morning after he's flown into Los Angeles from his Mexico City home.

"There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people's destiny into one--that, and death. That's where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It's something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that."

Yet Catan doesn't advocate a return to unexamined romanticism. In a nod to a concern that is both timeless and pointedly timely, his lovers also heed the call of self-knowledge.

"The story of Florencia is in many ways the story of [a] return journey: Somebody in the middle of her life decides to touch those feelings that made her what she is now," explains Catan, referring to the singer's quest for her long-lost love, as well as her own identity. "She's going back to her original country. She's also going back to see that lover who had been the foundation of her career and her life.

"We all leave something behind in order to become what we want to become," he continues in his British-inflected English. "Then at a certain point we always look back to see whether we've become what we wanted to become."

Catan has been in Los Angeles only a few days and he's already got the entire rehearsal hall cast and crew eating out of his hand. A warm and gracious man, he exudes pure delight at his fellow artists' efforts as he sits watching the production's first run-through one recent evening.

Occasionally, when the joy of the moment becomes too much, he gives a furtive gesture of support to one of the singers: a thumbs-up to baritone Rodney Gilfry as he performs the role of the river god Riolobo, blown kisses to soprano Sheri Greenawald who portrays the diva Florencia Grimaldi.

When associate director Andrew Morton calls for a break, the love fest continues. It quickly becomes evident that the company is as enamored and respectful of Catan as he is of them. Gilfry approaches to discuss a fine point of phrasing. A bit later, mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman talks through one of her character's moments with the composer.

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