Strong cast fuels a glowing ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’  

Elizabeth Caballero is excellent as the title character in Opera San José’s Bay Area premiere of Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas" onstage through May 5, 2024 at the California Theatre. (Photo courtesy David Allen)

An opera star’s trip on the Amazon River yields a voyage of discovery in Opera San José’s new production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” 

Daniel Catán’s 1996 opera, which opened Friday at the California Theatre as the company’s final production of its 40th anniversary season, is set on a steamboat filled with passengers sailing to Manaus, Brazil, to hear the beloved singer Florencia Grimaldi perform in the city’s opera house. 

This is the company’s first-ever Spanish language production, and directed by Crystal Manich, conducted by music director Joseph Marcheso, and sung in Spanish with English supertitles, the opera begins with a bustling scene against the verdant backdrop of a marketplace. In these moments, it seems nothing can go wrong. 

For the title character, though—who arrives just before the ship sails—the journey is freighted with meaning. Florencia’s aching to find her long-lost lover, a butterfly hunter she hasn’t seen in years. But each character in this story, loosely inspired by the magical-realist writings of the late Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, is longing for something. And fulfillment doesn’t always come. 

Rosalba, a young journalist, hopes for an interview with Florencia; Arcadio, the man she loves, wants to leave his job on the river to become a pilot. Paula and Alvaro, husband and wife, have lost interest in their relationship; at one point, they give up and throw their wedding rings overboard. The sense of crisis and imminent change on board the ship is unmistakable. 

Passengers aboard a riverboat (L-R, Guadalupe Paz, Efraín Solís, Vartan Gabrielian, Ricardo José Rivera, Elizabeth Caballero, Aléxa Anderson and César Delgado) encounter trouble in “Florencia en el Amazonas.” (Photo courtesy David Allen)

If Márquez is a touchstone for the story, Catán’s score always seems to recall Puccini, giving the singers a number of familiar-sounding arias. Florencia’s music bears the clearest marks of another operatic character, Tosca, although one can hear the influence of other Puccini works throughout. That’s fine, but the libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain is spotty, suffering throughout from lapses that fail to move the story forward. At Friday’s opening, the elements didn’t always cohere, particularly in the first act. 

Yet love proves an unstoppable engine in “Florencia,” which was a co-commission of the Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle Opera companies. At Saturday’s performance, the opera never registered as a great work. But there were engaging moments throughout; a lovely duet for Rosalba and Arcadio; revealing moments for Paula and Alvaro. A cholera outbreak hovers over the proceedings like an unseen menacing character. 

The company gave its best to make the production glow. Scenic designer Liliana Duque-Piñeiro has filled the stage with beauty, giving it a lush, vibrant feel, warming each scene with flowers and greenery where romance can bloom. Lighting designer Tláloc López-Watermann added to the magical atmosphere, and costumes by Ulises Alcala helped define the early 1900s era. 

The Amazon comes alive with magical realism in Opera San José’s “Florencia en el Amazonas.” (Photo courtesy David Allen)

And the cast is strong. Soprano Elizabeth Caballero, a veteran of the Florencia role, returned to it Saturday with assurance, delivering the character’s music with clarity and sumptuous, golden tone. Aléxa Anderson was a winning Rosalba; her Act 2 scene with Caballero was one of the evening’s standouts.  

Mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz (Paula) and baritone Efrain Solís (Alvaro) brought charm and gravitas to their scenes; tenor César Delgado (Arcadio) and bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian (The Captain) made essential contributions. Baritone Ricardo José Rivera exuded otherworldly gravitas as the mythical figure Riolobo. Johannes Löhner drew fine contributions from the chorus. 

Still, it was Caballero’s night. Catán ended his opera with a remarkable episode, and in her final scene, Florencia—alone onstage—sang an extended solo of magical transformation. Caballero delivered it with power and radiant beauty. Here, at last, the magic and mystery of “Florencia” came together in a thrillingly operatic finale. 

 Opera San José’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” continues through May 5 at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $50-$195 at (408) 437-4450 or  

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