World Premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino
Review by DAVID GREGSON: Los Angeles. Wednesday, September 29
Forget Alban Berg. Forget Leoš Janáček. Forget Sergei Prokofiev, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, Gottfried von Einem, Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle and Thomas Adès. Forget John Adams, Philip Glass and Tan Dun.
For composer Daniel Catán, the past 100 years of operatic development never took place.
You can even forget Giacomo Puccini with whom Catán’s new opera, Il Postino, invites so many comparisons. Puccini’s Turandot is much more harmonically disturbing and musically advanced than Los Angeles Opera’s currently showcased world premiere.
The colorfully orchestrated score is richly textured and romantic — and deeply heartfelt. The vocal parts reflect the sort of appealing lyricism that drew so many of us to opera in the first place. The whole thing flows along with the musical and conversational ease one does in fact find in Puccini or in the best of his contemporaries, and the central role of Pablo Neruda fits “the world’s greatest tenor” like a glove.
With this music, Plácido Domingo’s voice becomes young again. He soars with it, bringing to mind so many moments when he was much younger. It is almost impossible to believe that this phenomenal artist is 69 years old and that, sadly, many of us have truly begun to take him for granted. He’s just always around, just there, always penciling in new roles on his lengthening list like Don Giovanni tallying up female conquests. And then there he is popping up in some opera orchestra pit and leading the band.
So, let me just state from the outset, whatever one thinks of Il Postino as a work of art, whether one hears it as hopelessly retrograde or wonderfully fresh, this is an opportunity to hear a great artist at his current best before one possibly loses that opportunity forever. Of course, the man shows very few signs of slowing down, although he has resigned from the leadership of the Washington Opera after 14 years there. So — here would be a good place to insert some wise comment on the fickleness of fate.
Today there are innumerable critics who are still determined to assert the serialist artistic credo of Bruno Heinz Jaja, the inspired brainchild of Humphrey Searle and composer of “The Barber of Darmstatd” so beloved by many of us. Who, indeed, can ever forget the jaggedly angular phrases of “The end of day is the beginning of night; you can’t see nothing without a light.” These commentators and musicologists are virtually compelled to denounce Il Postino as pure kitsch. Il Postino is not for them.
Catán’s opera, however, is beautifully constructed for the kind of work that it is: direct, honest, heart-felt and a real audience pleaser — and it will be a shame if the very people who would likely love it the most fail to buy tickets and go. The story has both depth and easy sentimental appeal, the music is lithe and lyrical, and totally lacking the sense of calculated effect so obvious in the music of a composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, or even of Puccini in his more blatant moments.
Both Il Postino and this production of it are about as far away from Achim Freyer’s deliberately alienating treatment of Wagner as it’s possible to get. Can it even be the same Los Angeles audience applauding for this opera that cheered for the recent Ring Cycle?
With a libretto assembled by the composer himself, Il Postino is based on the popular film of the same name by Michael Radford, which in turn is based on the book, “Ardiente Paciencia,” by Antonio Skarmeta. The opera offers a largely fictional portrait of the celebrated Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was for a time an important leader in the Communist party and his biography shows him as significant political force during most of his lifetime — and up to this day he retains a legendary status on the left. His highly praised poetry (of which I personally have no knowledge in its original Spanish language and therefore cannot fairly evaluate) is full of sensual imagery.
The opera shows Neruda in exile on an Italian island, Cala di Sotto (Capri in real life), soaking up the beauty of the place and its people, and entering into an important friendship with his mail carrier, Mario Ruoppolo. Wonderfully sung and acted by American tenor Charles Castronovo, Mario, is il postino, a young man who has taken his job in order to escape the drudgery of his life as a fisherman. When he first meets Neruda, he hopes to use the poet’s books and then the words themselves to impress girls — and, ultimately, to become a poet himself and win the heart and hand of Beatrice Russo, an island beauty (superbly incarnated by soprano Amanda Squitieri). As the story works out, both Neruda and Mario develop as human beings, but Mario ultimately dies in the process — a major deviation from the movie. The opera’s final scene brings Mario back to life to sing a final duet with Neruda in a moment made memorable by Domingo and Castronovo together — certainly the greatest pairing this opera will ever have if it continues to be staged. I have seen Castronovo in two roles previously, and this one is a tremendous achievement for him.
All the supporting and subsidiary characters are superbly realized. Spanish mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera brings both authority and comic flair to the role of Donna Rosa, Beatrice’s disapproving mother who fears the power of metaphors more than actual sexual assaults. Spanish soprano
Cristina Gallardo-Domâs makes a strong impression as Neruda’s wife, Mathilde. More details about the uniformly excellent cast can be found at the Los Angeles Opera website.
Designed by Riccardo Hernandez, who also created the costumes, the elegant and fluidly moving sets and back-and-foreground projections are beautiful to behold. The poet’s words and doodles magically embellish the imagery. Use is also made of film strips and various animations. Stage director Ron Daniels does stunning work, making all the complicated scene changes and stage action look natural as daylight. And Grant Gershon, better known here as a first-rate chorus master, leads the orchestra with authority and emotional involvement. It is also wonderful to see the great Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov here in LA again in the interesting and affecting character role of the postmaster, Giorgio.
The composer joined the cast and conductor onstage Wednesday night during the work’s warmly applauded reception.
Some afterthoughts. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is excellent. And a question: How many American operas can you name in which both of the heroes are Communists and in which one of them is a Communist martyr to fascism? Il Postino: is definitely not for the Tea Party folks! I am surprised they are not marching outside the theater in protest!
MARIO RUOPPOLO: Charles Castronovo
PABLO NERUDA: Plácido Domingo
BEATRICE RUSSO: Amanda Squitieri
MATILDE NERUDA: Cristina Gallardo-Domâs
GIORGIO: Vladimir Chernov
DONNA ROSA: Nancy Fabiola-Herrera+
DI COSIMO/ANTONIO’S VOICE: José Adán Pérez‡
MARIO’S FATHER: Gabriel Lautaro Osuna
PRIEST: Christopher Gillett
COMPOSER/LIBRETTIST: Daniel Catán
CONDUCTOR: Grant Gershon
DIRECTOR :Ron Daniels*
SCENERY AND COSTUME DESIGNER:Riccardo Hernandez
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Jennifer Tipton*
PROJECTION DESIGNER :Philip Bussmann*
CHOREOGRAPHER: David Bridel
CHORUS MASTER :Grant Gershon
* LA Opera debut.
+ Operalia winner
‡ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program alumnus