20170205w_nws_opera

A scene from “Florencia en el Amazonas,” including Jennifer Schuler (center) as Florencia Grimaldi, at UNC School of the Arts.

In “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which opened Friday at the Stevens Center, hearts are broken and healed, and mystery and magic rule the day.

The UNC School of the Arts’ design and lighting department has outdone itself by creating a journey on the Amazon River into the interior of Brazil to the city of Manaus.

The scenery is not only represented by ever-changing projections of light that suggest trees, vines and flowers and create a sense of movement but also by a character, Riolobo (River Wolf), who represents the spirit of the river.

Into this ungovernable and wild setting come lovers and dreamers full of hopes and conflicts.

The setting, even without Riolobo, would be a character in its own right, and it is matched by the talented cast from UNCSA’s Fletcher Opera Institute, with stage direction by Nicholas Muni, the artistic director; and the UNCSA Symphony, conducted by Christopher Allen, a guest artist.

The orchestra brilliantly navigates the lush but difficult score with its wonderful, peeling horns and passages that suggest bird song and rushing waters.

Florencia Gimaldi, a great opera singer, is returning home to Manaus to reunite with the lover, Christobal, whom she left behind 20 years ago. The twist is that she is in disguise. None of her fellow voyagers recognize her, even though they are all going to Manaus to hear her sing.

Florencia, sung by Jenny Schuler, dominates the group of travelers. In their own way, each is looking to her for salvation.

Schuler is a vivid presence on the stage, conveying powerful passions with her rich, shimmering voice and beautiful, mobile face.

Paula, sung on Friday by Kathleen Felty, and Alvaro, performed by Cameron Jackson, are a married couple whose relationship is fraying. Felty and Jackson worked well together, convincingly troubled as they struggle with love and pride.

Paula and Alvaro look with envy on a young couple, Rosalba, a journalist who is writing a book about Florencia, and Arcadio, the nephew of the ship captain, who are just at the gateway to love.

Jacob Wright as Arcadio expresses frustration with the vocation that has been thrust upon him to take his aging uncle’s place as captain of the steamboat. His songs continually reference his desire to soar and see new places.

Zoe Johnson as Rosalba, also expresses a desire for freedom, but from the bonds of love. She fears the entrapment of relationship having seen lovers like Paula and Alvaro make misery for one another.

The Capitan, sung by Karl Buttermann, and Riolobo, performed by Andrew Rene, are constants who contain the emotions of the others, and move the story along. The Capitan tells Florencia’s story to her, and Riolobo plays the trickster, tearing lovers apart while providing the avenues for their reconciliation.

Buttermann has a robust bass-baritone that provided a lovely contrast with Schuler.

As the wild spirit of the river, Rene has inventive movement that he executes well, and his powerful baritone expresses his primal connection to the jungle.

The story takes place around the turn of the 20th century. Designers include Andrew Licout, scenery; Amy MacDonald, costumes; Joseph Naftal, lighting; Patrick Angle, projections; and Destinee Steele, wigs and makeup.

The show is shot through with symbolism and metaphor: butterflies, the search for love, the fear of it, the desire for freedom, journeys both physical and spiritual.

It is a powerful story, exquisitely told, leaving us to answer for ourselves the question of whether love traps us or is the only thing that can truly set us free.

lfelder@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7298 @LynnFelder

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