By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Opera: Il Postino (The Postman) by Daniel Catán
World premiere: Thursday, September 23, 2010 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Next performances: Sept. 29, Oct. 5 and Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance.
Los Angeles Opera’s history of commissioning new works has been spotty, at best; who can forget Nicholas and Alexandra or The Fly — perhaps a better question is, “who can (or wants to) remember them?” However, those memories were wiped away by the world premiere of Il Postino (The Postman), a stunning new opera by Daniel Catán, which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This was one of those all-too-rare nights when every individual element melded marvelously into a whole, a performance that reminded us that opera — at its best — can touch emotions and tell stories like no other medium.
Unlike the two aforementioned examples, for Il Postino the company’s entrusted the opening of its 25th anniversary season to an experienced opera composer. The 61-year-old Catán — who was born in Mexico City but now lives in South Pasadena and teaches at College of the Canyons — had written three operas before Il Postino, including Florencias en el Amazonas, which LAO mounted in 1997. Moreover, Catán had waited 15 years from the time he first encountered Il Postino before tackling it. Clearly it was time well spent.
He elected to write the opera in Spanish. As usual, LAO added English supertitles, which were occasionally a little too quick in appearing, thus causing laughter at the wrong points musically, but they also helped to keep the audience fully involved. However, while writing an opera in Spanish makes sense given Los Angeles’ growing Latino population, even those who don’t speak the language fluently were quite comfortable with what was taking place, more so, I suspect, than if the language had been Italian (which would have been sense because the story is set on a fictional island off of the Italian coast).
Adapting Il Postino into an opera wasn’t easy, by any means. Catán’s source material was Ardiente Pacienca (Burning Patience), a 1985 novella by Antonio Skármeta and the award-winning (and beloved by many) 1994 film, Il Postino, by Michael Radford. Catán was undaunted; not only did he compose the music, he also wrote the libretto, which included plenty of witty dialogue in the first two acts, followed by a heartbreaking conclusion that had many in the audience in tears, even if they knew what was coming. The loudest applause in the thunderous standing ovation that followed the performance was reserved for the composer — deservedly so.
Everyone in the production team stepped up to Catán’s high standard last night (which, by the way, was the 37th anniversary of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s death) . Director Ron Daniels and Riccardo Hernandez, who designed the scenery and atmospheric costumes, used two moveable walls, a platform that rolled back and forth, and furniture and other set pieces that supernumeraries moved on and off quickly but unobtrusively to keep about two dozen scenes flowing seamlessly (Catán’s Il Postino, which clocked in last night at a shade under three hours, joins the first two acts together and inserts a single intermission before the third act).
Phillip Bussmann’s projections illuminated the entire story effectively, being colorful, wistful or dramatic when called for. Among many highlights, he projected old black-and-white photos of scenes from Chilean political demonstrations to backstop the most gripping moments of the second and third acts. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton (who like Bussmann and Daniels was making her LAO debut) added immeasurably to the entire evening.
Music Director Grant Gershon seemed fully at ease with Catán’s rich, always interesting score and accompanied his singers sensitively. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion continues to be weak in projecting voices but balance concerns were minimal, for the most part. The LA Opera Orchestra was in fine form throughout the evening and some onstage instruments, including an accordion, added just the right “native” touches to the drama.
From top to bottom, the cast delivered performances that were sensitive, witty, dramatic and heartbreaking when called for. The acting carried the story from beginning — which commenced with Plácido Domingo as Neruda stripping his wife (Cristina Gallardo-Domâs) half-naked in a sensuous, yet tender declaration of their love — to the gripping end, when Charles Castronovo as Mario Ruppolo (The Postman of the title) joined Domingo for their climactic duet.
Domingo, four months shy of his 70th birthday, continues to be an amazing force onstage (and off, for that matter). Pablo Neruda is the 134th role that he has undertaken and it’s one of his most complete portrayals. He was more animated than I can remember in recent memory; to my mind, he embodied the character of Pablo Neruda (at least as it was portrayed in the movie) with uncanny accuracy. Moreover, Domingo continues to mix melodic pathos and steely power in just the right measures in a voice that remains a marvel of our era.
In some ways, Castronovo, who is half Domingo’s age and began his career 15 years ago as a member of the LAO chorus, had the more difficult assignment of the two. At the beginning of the opera, Mario is painfully shy, almost unable to talk in a complete sentence, but gradually grows to become fully expressive by the evening’s end. Catán used halting song-speech for Mario as the opera opened but by the third act, Castronovo was able to sound forth with radiant, full-throated power; his third-act aria, Why Should He Care About Me? was one of the evening’s many high points.
Amanda Squitieri looked and sounded alluring as Mario’s love interest, Beatrice Russo, while Nancy Fabiola Herrera was a witty Donna Rosa and Gallardo-Domâs played Neruda’s wife with just the right touch of worshipful concern. Other principal cast members were Vladimir Chernov as Giorgio, José Adán Pérez as Di Cosino and Gabriel Lautaro Osuna as Mario’s father.
If you don’t already have a ticket for one of the five remaining performances, grab one while they’re still available — this is a don’t-miss event. Next stop: Vienna, where Il Postino will make its European debut in December at the Theater an der Vien. The third commissioning company is Le Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, which gets its chance in June. From there, who knows? Il Postino has a real chance to enter the mainstream repertory for years to come.
(Photo caption) Plácido Domingo (L) as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Charles Castronovo as Mario Ruppolo (the postman) star in Los Angeles Opera's production of Daniel Catán's new opera, Il Postino. Photo from LA Opera.
• The evening began with the Star Spangled Banner. Ask not why.
• Parking entrances at the Music Center are limited because of construction. Allow extra time to get in if you’re parking or consider taking public transit. Presumably, the set piece for the post-event party will have been taken down, making movement around the outside of the Pavilion easier than it was last night.
• The three gigantic posters usually adorning the front of the Pavilion have disappeared, leaving empty white spaces in their place.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.