There are two ways to start an opera season: You can play it safe, going the Verdi-Puccini route of operatic favorites, or you can try to nudge audiences out of their comfort zone with something new.
This season, the Washington National Opera chose the second option with a production of “Florencia en el Amazonas” (“Florencia in the Amazon”), a work by contemporary Mexican composer Daniel Catan in Spanish, a language last heard on the WNO stage a decade ago.
Once WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello decided to break new ground, “Florencia” — which premieres Saturday — was an astute choice.
Catan’s opera is modern in the sense that it was first performed shortly after its completion in 1996, but avant garde it isn’t. The composer has created a work that, in its tonal structure, musical lushness and ethereal atmosphere, recalls Puccini and Debussy but with the addition of a voice all his own, plus the prominent use of marimbas and occasional Latin-sounding percussion.
“I describe the music as ‘Puccini had a baby, and Debussy was the nanny,’” says soprano Christine Goerke, who is singing the title role of Florencia for the first time in the production. “I was really blown away by the rich, melodious sound.”
Bethesda-born soprano Andrea Carroll, an alumna of the Levine School of Music, said the Latin rhythm interpolations are so infectious that “Christine and I would start dancing the salsa during the rehearsals. We couldn’t help it.”
In a Boston production of the opera earlier this year, the link with Puccini was emphasized at one point by having the Italian composer’s leading women — Manon (“Manon Lescaut”), Mimi (“La Boheme”), Turandot and Butterfly — surround Florencia on stage. In the Washington production, some of the dancers bring the local flavor of the Brazilian river — as piranhas.
The opera’s narrative weaves reality with the mystery and magic that many Latin Americans associate with the Amazon River into a vibrant tapestry in which it is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what’s magic. Hardly surprising, since the story is inspired by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
Florencia Grimaldi is a famous, if aging, opera diva who embarks on a steamboat journey down the Amazon to sing for the first time in the opera house of Manaus, her hometown. But the real motive of her homecoming is to find her long-lost lover, a butterfly hunter who has disappeared in the rain forests.
Fellow passengers on the steamship El Dorado, on which most of the action takes place, include the captain, his nephew, a young journalist named Rosalba (Andrea Carroll), who is gathering material for a biography of the diva, and an older couple who, having taken the trip to rekindle their lost love, bicker over menu choices.
And then there’s Riolobo, a character with a painted face who bridges the real and mystical worlds.
As Florencia and her companions are carried farther into the rain forest, the mystery deepens and the drama on board weaves love, conflict, death, a violent storm and, ultimately, a cholera epidemic. The resulting quarantine confines the passengers to the steamboat, preventing Florencia from going in search of her love, until finally the diva’s spirit is transformed into an emerald butterfly.
Ms. Goerke, who has made a name for herself as an interpreter of strong Richard Strauss roles, including those in “Elektra” and “Ariadne auf Naxos,” says she wondered at first, “Is my voice too big for this? It’s difficult to judge from reading the score on paper.” But she heard the orchestra play it and realized it is both more challenging and more powerful than she had realized.
The Spanish text posed a challenge for Ms. Goerke, who had not sung an opera in the language before. To overcome the problem, she worked with a coach and mastered Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s highly literate libretto.
Introducing a new opera to audiences is always something of a gamble, and the WNO made an extra effort to presell “Florencia,” which is directed by Ms. Zambello. In May, the opera and Colombian Ambassador Luis Carlos Villegas held a joint reception for prominent opera patrons (Garcia Marques was Colombian). Ms. Zambello wrote a letter to WNO regulars in effect introducing “Florencia” as “a stunning work, an important addition to the operatic canon,” and urging them to see it.
Earlier this month, she chaired a panel on what the WNO is calling a “modern operatic classic,” including excerpts from the opera sung by members of the cast. And last week, she and members of the creative team behind the new production talked about the opera at the Kennedy Center.
Catan, who lived in Los Angeles, was commissioned to write “Florencia” by a consortium of American opera houses: the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and the Seattle Opera. When he died two years ago at the age of 62, his most recent completed opera, “Il Postino,” based on the Italian movie of the same name, had just been performed for the first time, with Placido Domingo singing the lead role of the writer Pablo Neruda, which Catan had written for the tenor. He has left an unfinished work, “Meet John Doe,” based on Frank Capra’s classic movie.
WHAT: “Florencia in the Amazon” (sung in Spanish, with English subtitles)
WHEN: Saturday through Sept. 28
WHERE: Washington National Opera, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., Washington, D.C. 20566
TICKETS: 202/467-4600, 800/444-1524