Utah Opera will be stepping out of the comfort zone of standard repertoire when it presents Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas starting Jan. 19.

The work received its world premiere in 1996 at Houston Grand Opera, and since then has been staged at a number of houses around the country, including Los Angeles Opera, Seattle Opera and Opera Colorado. It has also been recorded with Patricia Schuman in the title role and Patrick Summers conducting.

Cynthia Clayton as Florencia (Photo: Utah Opera)

The story invokes the magical realism of South American literature. As the opera opens, Florencia Grimaldi, an aging opera star, returns home to sing at the opera house in Manaus. She hopes that her performance will come to the attention of Cristóbal, her former lover, a butterfly hunter who has disappeared in the jungle. Florencia boards a steamboat on the Amazon River for her trip to Manaus. Along the way, the boat is beset by storms, foul water and a cholera epidemic, among other things. With these setbacks, Florencia fears she’ll never be reunited with her lover. But at the end, she is miraculously transformed into an emerald butterfly.

The plot sounds as if it is deeply indebted to the works of the remarkable Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, especially his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, but the story is in fact original and not based on any specific source. “It’s inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera,” said conductor James Lowe. “There is a boat trip and an outbreak of cholera in both works, but none of the characters in the opera are derived from [the novel]. Márquez certainly influenced Daniel, but Florencia is not specifically based on any one of Márquez’s novels.”

Lowe is well acquainted with Catán’s works. He and Catán, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 62, worked together several times during the final years of the composer’s life. “I was the assistant conductor when Houston revived Florencia [2001].” Lowe also worked on another one of Catán’s operas, Salsipuedes, in the early 2000s. “And I talked with him three months before his death,” Lowe added.

Two members of Utah Opera’s cast were also closely connected to Catán.

Soprano Cynthia Clayton and her husband, baritone Hector Vásquez, were close friends of the composer. Vásquez was in the premiere production of Florencia where he created the role of Álvaro. For Utah Opera’s production, Vásquez sings the part of the Captain. Clayton is making her debut as Florencia.

Clayton said she and Florencia have a few things in common. “We’re both singers. We’re both aging. And we’re both celebrating our 20thanniversary as opera singers.” But there are some differences, too. “Our careers took different directions,” Clayton said. “I’ve tried to keep balance in my life, but there is no balance in her life.” Florencia is going through an “existential crisis. She is trying to get back in touch with who she was.”

Nmon Ford as Ríolobo (Photo: Utah Opera)

“There is an element of mystery surrounding Florencia,” said stage director José Maria Condemi. “She is famous, but no one recognizes her [on the boat]. She has one goal, and that is to find Cristóbal, but she has no information on him. She doesn’t know if he is still alive or if he is dead. But she is driven to find him.”

And Condemi added that mystery also shrouds Florencia at the end of the opera. “What happens to her? Does she die? Does she meet Cristóbal? Or is she hallucinating?” Much like the Liebestod at the end of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the final resolution is left up to the audience’s imagination.

There are two worlds in Florencia. There is the real world and then there is the world of magic. And while most of the characters inhabit primarily one or the other, there is one person who moves between both words – the deckhand Ríolobo. “He is a liaison between the natural world and the spiritual world,” said baritone Nmon Ford, who’ll be singing the role. “He opens doors and interacts with everyone.”

“The entire opera moves between magic and realism,” Condemi said. And back screen projections will be used to underscore the two worlds. “We’re going to manipulate the visual world, and this video component is central to the story.”

Anyone who hasn’t heard the opera might assume that the music is dense, complex and challenging for the audience, but that’s not the case. “The music is incredibly lush and gorgeous,” said Lowe. “It’s Puccini meets Strauss meets Ravel.”

And it’s a treat for the singers, too. “It’s lyrical for the vocalists,” Lowe said. “There is no holding back. Daniel lets the singers soar.”

“It’s a great first time opera for audiences,” Clayton added. “It’s not terribly long. It’s visually stunning, and it’s so evocative. It’s filled with beautiful exoticism.”

  • What: Utah Opera, Florencia en el Amazonas
  • Venue: Capitol Theatre
  • Time and Date: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19, 21, 23, 25; 2 p.m. Jan. 27
  • Tickets: $13-$78 ($5 higher when purchased on day of performance)
  • Phone: 801-355-2787 or 888-451-2787
  • Web: www.utahopera.org
  • ALSO: Opera Prelude, 30-minute introduction to the opera with principal coach Carol Anderson, Capitol Theatre orchestra level, one hour before each performance
  • ALSO: Question and Answer with Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth, Capitol Theatre, Founders Room, mezzanine level, immediately following each performance

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