James C. Taylor
After ten years and numerous high-profile misfires, Plácido Domingo and LOS ANGELES OPERA's persistence in commissioning new work for the lyric stage has paid off. Daniel Catán's Il Postino is dramatically engaging and musically satisfying, with only a few rough edges needing refinement before it moves on to Vienna and Paris-and perhaps even a further life in the operatic repertoire.
Based on the popular Italian-language film by Michael Radford (as well as the novel it was adapted from, Antonio Skarmeta's Ardiente Paciencia), Catán's three-act work captures the best aspects of the film and smoothly integrates the incidents into operatic form. Catán's Il Postino is like the film, an old-fashioned, whimsical slice of fictional life-but the composer's own libretto balances politics and melodrama far better than the by-committee screenplay. The only real problem is that Catán, for some inexplicable reason, keeps the story set in Italy-despite writing the opera in Spanish. (Pablo Neruda never lived in Italy; likewise, Skarmeta's novel is set not in Italy but on an island off the coast of Chile. Where was the dramaturge during all of this?)
Happily, Catán's music suffers no such identity crisis. Like this year's other big, successful American commission, Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, Catán's Il Postino is a conservative work, but an assured one. Sure, there are hints of John Adams and Steve Reich in the rhythms and textures of the score, but it is very much an unapologetically melodic piece. What works about Il Postino is the way these breezy melodies never sound retrograde-the swelling strings and twittering woodwinds match the romantic temperament of the setting and characters. At its best, Il Postino calls to mind Britten and his unique talent for creating flowing melodies and tonal orchestrations that sound fresh and not backwards-looking. (It should also be said that Catán pulls off the tricky feat of writing a number of evocative, instrumental ‘sea' passages, which never feel cribbed from Britten's famous Grimes interludes.) My main quibble is that all of this lushness feels very much the same; the whole opera sort of sounds like the first, cheery part of La Bohème's Act 4, before Mimì starts coughing and the music gets darker.
Another quibble is that an opera (especially a lavish, Puccini-esque one) about a poet seems to call for a big, memorable aria or two. Despite scenes that promise to work up to a showstopping number, Catán doesn't deliver a big, virtuosic set piece worthy of past operatic poets taken from history, such as Hans Sachs or Andrea Chénier.
One craves this all the more because the role of Neruda is played by Plácido Domingo, whose tenor sound (on October 2) showed no diminution after a year of singing baritone parts. Given his own celebrity status, Domingo is well cast as the revered ‘love poet', and Catán gives him melodies that are right in the sweet spot of his voice. If Catán ducks writing one Puccini-esque crowd-pleaser, he succeeds in writing a number of appealing duets. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs and Domingo share one in Act 1 (the ‘nude' duet, where the soprano bares much more than her lustrous voice). Later in that act, Domingo and the tenor Charles Castronovo blend their voices nicely in a duet about metaphors. They combine again in the finale, in a climax that is understated and surprisingly moving.
Catán's avoidance of big, ear-grabbing arias is perhaps in part due to the lyricism of Neruda's poetry (some of which is set to music). Like the composer Peter Lieberson, whose ‘Neruda Songs' were premiered in Los Angeles five years ago, Catán tempers the florid passion of the poetry with music that is less ‘Romantic'. Ironically it is the romance between Castronovo's Mario the Postman (originally written for Rolando Villazón, who dropped out) and Amanda Squitieri's young barmaid that seems under-scored. Both Castronovo and Squitieri convince as lovers and produce lovely sounds, yet although their marriage is what keeps the plot rolling, it is the friendship between Mario and Neruda that Catán's music dramatizes most effectively. (Mention should be made here of Vladimir Chernov's amusing turn as Giorgio, the town's old communist postmaster.) One other minor musical misfire is Catán's decision to drop a gypsy folk number into Act 2, shattering the sonic environment he's created. That, along with the Italian setting, could easily be jettisoned.
Otherwise, Il Postino sounds like an opera that will not be returned to sender. Ron Daniels's efficient production was minimal yet never looked cheap. The conductor Grant Gershon led the orchestra in a confident reading of the new score, and the chorus and supporting parts were sung with colour and vigour. Like Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, this new work marks no turning point in American opera; but it succeeds as a highly singable and mostly enjoyable show. After a string of premieres including The Fly and Nicholas and Alexandra, it's good to see Domingo and Los Angeles Opera involved in a new opera that delivers.
JAMES C. TAYLOR