Front of a riverboat onstage, surrounded by blue/purple light and projections of butterflies. A woman in a light long dress stands on the upper deck of the boat.
Ana María Martínez in Florencia en el Amazonas at Lyric Opera Credit: Cory Weaver

With the first Chicago snow of the season also came the opening of Florencia en el Amazonas, and the late Daniel Catán’s opera kept the audience warm with hot romance on a riverboat making its way to Manaus, Brazil. We are greeted with lush jungle greens that flank the stage and the El Dorado sitting pretty, filled with passengers and fantastical beings alike. 

It’s Riolobo (energetic and captivating baritone Ethan Vincent) who commands the stage first. He’s a mystical guide of sorts, introducing us to the lore of the opera diva Florencia Grimaldi and the characters enamored with her legendary, yet long-missed, voice. It’s a tad ironic that an audience across the river awaits her “brilliant voice [to] unlock the long-silent opera house.” 

At the Lyric Opera, the same transpires with a heartening performance by soprano Ana María Martínez, who goes incognito on the riverboat as the other passengers praise the elusive singer. It’s been 20 years since she stepped foot in South America, pursuing a career that also separated her from her first love, butterfly hunter Cristobal. 

Florencia en el Amazonas
Through 11/28: Thu 11/18, 7 PM; Sun 11/21, 2 PM; Fri 11/26, 7 PM; Sun 11/28, 2 PM; Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker, 312-827-5600, lyricopera.org, $39-$319. In Spanish with English subtitles.

On board the El Dorado is journalist Rosalba (charming and steadfast soprano Gabriella Reyes) who is writing a biography on the diva Florencia, and takes some liberties to fill in the 20-year blanks. Rosalba catches the eye of the riverboat captain’s nephew, Arcadio (tenor Mario Rojas), and the interest is mutual but full of resistance as they’ve borne witness to love gone sour. A shining example wobbles among them—Paula (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel) and Álvaro (baritone Levi Hernandez) squabble after decades of marriage and even impassioned gestures in jest carry consequences. Under librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s narrative hand, we track love: the budding, the bloomed, and the dried. 

When waters turn turbulent and take what seemingly cannot be returned, we witness the magical realism in which this opera is steeped. Catán’s opera draws inspiration from the work and worlds of Gabriel García Márquez, and here some may recognize similar settings and themes drawn from the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

Even in some of the more chaotic and heart-wrenching moments, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the production design. Lights by Mark McCullough and projections by S. Katy Tucker worked together to immerse us in a richness only found in oil paintings. Among the action, sunrises and thunderstorms are masterfully done. Although our characters remain aboard the riverboat, with a crunched playing space, director Francesa Zambello is skillful in creating her tableaux. In moments of both quiet navigation and desperate steering, we are met with beautiful dance interludes (striking choreography by Eric Sean Fogel) featuring maybe water nymphs (water gods? water Amazons?). 

All of the above is supported by compelling and playful orchestration conducted by Jordan de Souza, who makes his Lyric debut with this fantastical scoring. 

This production marks many firsts for the Lyric, the most-heralded being Florencia en el Amazonas’s status as the “first Spanish-language work to be presented as a part of [their] mainstage opera season.” Such is a striking first considering composer Catán’s opera celebrates 25 years of existence. As a similarly aged twentysomething, this was my first time attending the opera mildly of my own volition and not as a part of a high school or college class. I’m intimately aware how alienating this gorgeous art form can be, leaving much of its would-be audience behind. I was witness to a disheartening situation in the audience that made me question who was truly welcome in the space, and who this production is for. Spanish speakers in the audience were repeatedly hushed by their opera-going seatmates, making me wonder what could be done to instead explicitly welcome folks to respond with their full selves. 

Such a beautiful and masterful work is deserving of a big and boisterous audience that reciprocates the energy we are treated with onstage. There is so much promise and potential here for the Lyric and the further amplification of Catán’s compositions.