A month after the death of novelist “Gabo” García Márquez earlier this year, a tell-all book was published in France written by an exiled former bodyguard of Fidel Castro. The bodyguard (who, for whatever it’s worth, clearly nurses a grudge after having been jailed by his former boss) details the allegedly lavish life of the strongman who has officially lived on a $36 monthly salary, a life which included yachting and spear-fishing excursions on a private island with CNN’s Ted Turner, East German Chancellor Erich Honecker, and Gabo.

As much as the news undermined the ascetic image cultivated by Castro, it accentuated the adventuresome one attached to García Márquez. Perhaps no writer of his era lived a life so intertwined with its history as the Nobel laureate and author of 100 Years of Solitude and Love in a Time of Cholera: a life which, for him, included covering the 1958 coup in Venezuela, mediating peace talks in his native Colombia, becoming legal advisor to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and getting punched in the face by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Such was the legend of Gabo that his name would inevitably be associated with any work bearing his trademark literary style—-what others called magical realism, what he at different points called surrealism or “pararealidad”—-even those written by other people. Thus the Washington National Opera’s season opener, Florencia in the Amazon, is not written by Gabo, nor is it about Gabo, nor is it adapted from any particular book by Gabo. Nevertheless it is, according to the WNO, “inspired by” him, which means it’s set in Latin America and has, you know, magical shit going on.

In fact, the story bears closer resemblance to 1997’s Anaconda, starring Ice Cube and J. Lo, than to any of Gabo’s novels. But rather than a documentary film shoot that turns into a quest for a mythic snake, this ill-fated boat ride down the Amazon is a trip to the opera that turns into a quest for a mythic butterfly hunter. Both involve deadly river perils and bad accents. Both are also wonderfully entertaining, alternately campy and touching and thrilling. But in Florencia‘s case, you don’t have to be embarrassed to tell your friends you spent Saturday night watching it.

This is an opera that doesn’t hinge on the singing alone, as there’s a lot for non-opera buffs to enjoy. Like last season’s Moby-Dick, the staging is the main attraction, at the center of which is the steamboat—-an impressive, fully rotating 360-degree set by designer Robert Israel.  Background jungle scenery projections by S. Katy Tucker give the boat the illusion of movement, and there are other inventive touches like a lightning storm denoted by metallic confetti.

And yet the singing too is mostly, if not uniformly, good. The cast is led by soprano Christine Goerke, the titular Florencia, who smothers some notes in the lower register and peters out a bit on the high end. But her fluttery tone and wide vibrato contrast well with her frequent duet partner, solid bass-baritone David Pittsinger. Another standout, mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera, has a much more direct, sharper enunciation than Goerke, which works nicely on her own but not as well with her wan love interest, tenor Patrick O’Halloran, or the fifth wheel in this rainforest double date, baritone Norman Garrett, who lacks in projection.

And there is, of course, the magic. In this case, the magical part is a bunch of indigenous Amazonian dancers who personify the river, leaping and pirouetting around the boat and occasionally carrying away lost items or passengers—-all in full Exotic Native dress, loincloths and feather headdresses and all. OK. So this is the second opera in a row in which the WNO has chosen to denote a fantasy element by using people of a certain race (portrayed by actors or dancers of another race) as stand-ins for magical creatures. Well, the WNO is nothing if not consistent, I suppose.

Florencia is new to the WNO and still pretty new in itself: Originally put together by now WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello (who also directs this production) with librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain and composer Daniel Catán, it premiered in Houston in 1996. But it still feels like an old-fashioned opera in good ways and bad, from the stock exoticism to Catán’s lavishly romantic music. Catán was a celebrated Mexican composer, a friend of ex-WNO director Plácido Domingo, who died too young. This opera showcases his easy feel for melody, suspense, and a good dramatic arc (the introspective second act is sparer, and sadder, than the first, which brims with optimism and excitement), and sounds more like a late 19th- or early 20th-century composition than one written a century later. First-time WNO conductor Carolyn Kuan does a good job bringing out all of Catán’s elements despite relatively little creative leeway, e.g. no overture to speak of.

Unfortunately Florencia has a short run—-just over one week. WNO reserves space at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in one-week intervals, and what would be a second week butted up against the opening of Evita. And I suppose Evita gets priority, which is a shame. Florencia is the kind of production that both the WNO and Kennedy Center could stand to showcase more, to gain a wider and newer audience beyond either the standard opera or musical-theater crowd. It’s got vocal talent, accessible music, terrific staging, and a sort-of-original story. All that’s missing is a giant snake.

Florencia in the Amazon continues through September 28 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. In Spanish with English surtitles. $25 – $300.

Photo by Scott Suchman