“Is this going to be, like, atonal?” the young man behind me asked his companion. The pair were settling into their seats at Jazz at Lincoln Center, just before the recently-revived New York City Opera's performance of Florencia en el Amazonas, on Wednesday evening.

Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi) © Sarah Shatz
Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi)
© Sarah Shatz
“Nah, I heard it's actually really pretty music,” came the response. “Thank god. I can't deal with that kind of contemporary music without a single melody.”

Indeed, if I had not know that Daniel Catán's score had been composed in the 1990s, I might have guessed that it had been composed in the 1890s. Not only are there melodies galore, but the music swells with the sort of late Romanticism that Richard Strauss might have given two thumbs up. (The only ear-catching touch comes from a quirky percussion instrumentation that features harps, marimbas, djembes and steel drums.) It was the first Spanish-language opera to be premièred at a major United States house, having been co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera in 1996. After its first performances in Houston and Los Angeles, it has swept across the country, getting performed from Seattle to Colorado to Nashville over the last dozen years. The Nashville Opera production by stage director John Hoomes was here presented to uproarious approval.

Maybe it is fitting then, given its widespread popularity, that the music would be relatively inoffensive. The soaring Romanticism further makes sense given the story of the opera, in which a cast of García-Márquezian characters float down the Amazon River on a steamboat rife with passion and yearning. The dual Romantic themes of love and nature intertwine as the river takes on human qualities and the voice of the title character, opera singer Florencia Grimaldi, takes on the qualities of a butterfly. This conflation of the human with the nonhuman, and the natural with the artificial, was perfectly portrayed in Nicholas Villeneuve's choreography and restaging, in which the dance troupe BHdos embodied the river itself. Clad in silvery blue bodysuits, they swayed and fluttered along the front of the stage, transforming the river into a living entity in a way that Catán's melodies and orchestration could not.

<i>Florencia en el Amazonas</i> at NYCO © Sarah Shatiz
Florencia en el Amazonas at NYCO
© Sarah Shatiz

Above and behind the chain of human waves, Cara Schneider's scenery similarly shimmered in lush waves of red, gold and green. Barry Steele's video and lighting design offered an immersive update on the typical opera production, with a movie-theater-size screen illustrating the constant motion of the river, and of the story, along the back wall of the stage. The video projections – mostly of sloshing waves and swooping panoramic movement along the river – were vivid enough that I felt seasick by the opera's end. (And indeed, I related to the character who dashes offstage, hand over her mouth, trying not to vomit from the swaying of the ship.) During the final scene, Florencia sings her final aria to the missing Cristóbal and simultaneously metamorphizes into a butterfly. The realistic images behind her disintegrated into a swirl of color and light, once again conflating reality with fantasy and blurring into the sort of magical realism that drives the opera as a whole.

Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi) © Sarah Shatz
Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi)
© Sarah Shatz

As Florencia, soprano Elizabeth Caballero was not as dazzling during this final scene as she had been throughout the rest of the performance, her voice thinning and straining where it should have been at its strongest. On the whole, however, she and the rest of the cast were remarkable. They lent electricity and drama to tepid vocal lines and a plot chock full of clichés. As the Captain, Kevin Thompson carried a tone that was robust and assured; Won Whi Choi and Philip Cokorinos were likewise compelling as Arcadio and Riolobo, respectively. As the journalist Rosalba, the lively and vocally graceful Sarah Beckham-Turner brought occasional comic relief. Dean Williamson, conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra, maintained a brisk and energetic tempo throughout. Ultimately, however, the musical element of this opera could not keep up with its wondrous visual, theatrical, and choreographic spectacle.