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Il Postino delivers in LA

Edited to add: In Saturday's Washington Post: "Il Postino": Welcome notes for Domingo fans, by Anne Midgette.

Other reviews:
Los Angeles Times:
L.A. Opera premieres "Il Postino," by Mark Swed.
San Francisco Chronicle: L.A. Opera premieres "Il Postino," by Joshua Kosman.
AP: Daniel Catán's "Il Postino" opens with Domingo, by Ronald Blum.
Out West Arts: You've got mail, by Brian Holt.
Class Act: "Il Postino" - first class and then some, by Robert D. Thomas.

(read my full review after the jump)

The latest contender for the title of Major New American Opera, Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino,” which opened at the Los Angeles Opera last night, is a Spanish-language work based on an Italian film by a British director. This is perfectly reasonable in an art form in which the music, not the words, is supposed to do the talking.

The music of Catán’s lovely score speaks in an eminently recognizable idiom: International Opera. It has lyrical vocal writing, lush orchestral interludes, hints of Verdi and Puccini. There’s love. There’s death. Add the plot of a popular (and Oscar-winning) film and throw Plácido Domingo into the mix for good measure, and you’ve got something with considerable crowd appeal, which brought the opening night audience to its feet.

It’s certainly a grateful role for Domingo. The exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the opera as in Michael Radford’s 1994 movie, is an aging but still-sexy artist pondering life and art and his legacy, with world renown and magnetic charisma. Sound familiar? Domingo is more limited as an actor than Philippe Noiret, who played Neruda in the film, but the 69-year-old approached the 134th role of his career gamely -- even letting himself appear as an old guy, pants belted above his waist, rather than in the matinee-idol guise he is still well able to muster -- and sang with autumnal ardor about love, and fatherland, and poetry.

Catán gave him plenty to sing. The opera retains much of the film’s dialogue while adding love music for Neruda and his wife, Matilde (Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who really is Chilean, looking and sounding exquisite); a buffo-style tenor duet for Neruda and the simple postman Mario (Charles Castronovo), who gradually comes to worship him; and a couple of Neruda’s poems, which make perfect arias. The music showcased Domingo’s ringing tone, tapped into an unexpected tender streak with a few high pianissimos, and never carried him too far above the staff. This opera would, in fact, be destined to live forever simply as a meaty role for an aging tenor, if only star tenors, these days, didn’t tend to burn out faster than they age. Domingo, more and more, is a miraculous exception.

As a vehicle for Domingo, the opera succeeds beautifully. As an opera, it does tolerably well. Catán’s strength is beautiful music (something he already showed in “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which is coming to the Maryland Opera Studio in November), and he offers plenty of it here -- sometimes in odd counterpoint to the laconic words of the dialogue it’s supporting. This is, of course, a Love Story — Mario wins the love of his Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri) through poetry — and the opera succeeds best at traditionally operatic moments, like the full-bore, Pucciniesque wedding septet. Its weakness was a dogged fixation on the overblown. The film, for all its realism, is a kind of parable; the opera, and its Brazilian-born director Ron Daniels, often underscored its points with a certain literal-mindedness.

The film focused on metaphors; the opera kept making them concrete. When Domingo sang Neruda’s famous love sonnet “Mañana XXVII,” a poetic evocation of his naked beloved, he disrobed Gallardo-Domas to the waist (so much for figurative speech). Later, in Domingo and Castronovo’s duet, the words beat the metaphor theme just about to death: it was the music that made the real point (about the shared excitement of an older mentor and a younger student, backed up by the contrast between Domingo’s plummier sound and Castronovo’s rawer, lighter one).

Literal, too, was the conducting of the estimable Grant Gershon, who led with such force that the generally respectable singers were sometimes hard to hear over the swells and falls of the music, and the little curlicues of embellishment, like rolled Rs, that punctuated the score. Squitieri, an alumna of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, was a little over-emphatic as Beatrice, stripped of her prototype’s smouldering mystery, but had some lovely vocal moments. Nancy Fabiola Herrera was a solid anchor as her scolding aunt Donna Rosa; and Vladimir Chernov had fun in the semi-comic role of Mario’s boss, Giorgio.

But literalness gave rise to some fine ideas, like casting Gabriel Lautaro Osuna, a flamenco singer, as Mario’s father. In the midst of the operatic voices, he stood up at his son’s wedding to sing a toast in a plainspoken vernacular, with moving dignity.

My quibble with “Il Postino” would be that there weren’t enough telling moments like this. The weight of the opera score crushed some of the details beneath it: the islanders descended into mere local color (an obligatory fisherman’s chorus was a really unnecessary interpolation); Mario and Beatrice became simply another cute opera couple. Even the tragedy at the end (no spoilers here) was morphed from the specific to the generically heroic.

Opera is large-scale, but it’s also theater — it’s strengthened by depicting the particular. “Il Postino” takes refuge, too often, in generalities, poetry, and lovely music. Still, there are worse things to hide in -- and worse criticisms to make than to say that Catán has written a very lovely opera. It will continue on this season to Paris and Vienna. No word on whether it will come to Washington.

By Anne Midgette  | September 24, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  national, news, opera  
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Pablo Neruda was a hard-core communist, an admirer of Stalin and a recipient of a Stalin Peace Prize. After the tryrant's death Neruda penned an Ode to Stalin in praise of his hero. Scenes in Il Postino of crowds waving red flags to the strains of The Internationale, the red hymn, recall the glory days of Communism.
Before a final total was made of the human lives destroyed by that fanatical ideology-100 million. Oh, yes, there is also a love story and the sets are lovely. I'm waiting for an opera based on an admirer of Adolph Hitler that features a tender love story played out to choruses of the Horst Wessel Lied. There was not much to choose between those two dictators but liberal admiration of Stalinists persists despite the enormity of their hero's crimes.

Posted by: mhr614 | September 26, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

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