By Ted AYALA
Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was packed on the night of Oct. 5 with people anxious to hear the Los Angeles Opera’s latest commission, Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino.” There were even quite a few people standing in a queue outside the theater hoping to obtain cancelled tickets. It certainly appeared that Daniel Catán and L.A. Opera had a hit on their hands.
Catán’s “Il Postino” is based on the novel by Antonio Skármeta and the film by Michael Radford, though the opera goes its own way that complements its previous incarnations. Taking place against a sun-drenched backdrop of hazy Mediterranean sensuality, “Il Postino” revolves around Mario (Charles Castronovo), a somewhat feckless, but good natured young postman and his unlikely postal customer, Pablo Neruda (Placido Domingo), who has been exiled from Chile for his communist beliefs. Mario seeks the help of Neruda and his gift for ardent lyricism. Over the course of the work, Mario is able to woo the woman he loves and even becomes a revolutionary – all thanks to the latent poetic gift that Neruda unlocked.
Catán’s music fit well into the dreamy world of “Il Postino.” It was the sunny lyricism of the first half hour of Puccini’s Tosca meets Debussy’s Jeux. Yet the music seemed a bit at odds with the opera’s ardent subject matter. It was genial music; quite beguiling. But never did the passion on stage boil over into more gripping music – even with a piquant topless scene with Neruda’s wife Matilde, as sung by Cristina Gallardo-Domas. Catán’s vocal lines, composed with these singers’ abilities in mind, fit snugly, though one would have wished that he pushed his singers above the stave more often than he did. While one can understand why he never pushed the singers above their comfort zones, a little push above the stave here and there for the sake of musical and dramatic excitement wouldn’t have hurt. The opera’s quasi-melodic, parlando style flowed along agreeably enough, but it didn’t quite etch itself more firmly into this listener’s memory. The most memorable part of the opera for this listener was a little ditty for wind band that accompanied the opera’s éminence grise – a caricature of a capitalist, bourgeois type that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Shostakovich or Revueltas.
The opera’s ham-fisted politicking marred the experience somewhat. The closing scene, a communist rally with the stage bedecked in red, made many audience members murmur in discomfort. When Mario dies at the hand of policemen sent to break up the rally, the music impresses upon the listener in no uncertain terms that Mario has died a martyr’s death. While I have nothing against musical works where the composer expresses their political views (just think of Beethoven, Wagner, or Ives, for example), I do mind when it’s handled as clumsily as it was here. Furthermore, Pablo Neruda, great poet though he was, hardly espoused political beliefs that could be considered admirable. While he ought to be best remembered for his love poetry – some of the finest written in any language – he also wrote embarrassing odes to Stalin and Fidel Castro, among other despots. It should also be remembered that while the average Chilean was forced to wait in line in interminable queues for basic supplies during the Salvador Allende era, Neruda (and Allende himself) lived an affluent lifestyle that would have been the envy of many a committed capitalist.
The cast was simply perfect – the roles were composed with them in mind, after all. Placido Domingo, in his late 60s, still possesses an instrument of astonishing beauty and power. The warmth and fatherly tenderness he brought to the role of Pablo Neruda was captivating. Charles Castronovo as Mario was utterly charming. Cristina Gallardo-Domas’ honeyed singing was enchanting. Grant Gershon conducted marvelously, giving his singers ample room to spin their melodies.
All in all, “Il Postino” has been quite the buzz lately and looks to be another success for Daniel Catán. Personally, I feel that Florencia en la Amazonas still represents this composer’s best work, but I hope a recording or score is printed soon so I can study this work further.
If you’ve been itching to hear “Il Postino,” time is running out. The last performance in Los Angeles will be on Oct. 16. Afterward, “Il Postino” will be delivering to Paris and Vienna.
Ted Ayala is the music critic for the Crescenta Valley Weekly. You can find more of his articles at his blog QWERTYsonata at qwertysonata.blogspot.com.