Review: Audience Ovation for Domingo, Castronovo in Catan’s “Postino” – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2010

Mexican-born composer Daniel Catan, who is a resident of Los Angeles and a champion of operas in the Spanish language, has composed a new opera, “Il Postino”, that opened the Los Angeles Opera’s 2010-11 season. The new work advances both Catan’s personal reputation and the cause of Spanish-language opera. The subject suggests several themes – the nature of the creative process, recognition of talent in the untutored,  and the juxtaposition of a simple poetry into the realpolitik of revolution and reaction.

It is also a paean to the poetry of Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, a Chilean crusader for social justice, who, in the mid-20th century battles between East and West, threw in his lot with the Communists. But it is not Neruda‚Äôs revolutionary manifestos that the opera is about; rather it is his advocacy of the poetic metaphor to describe the wonders of the world around us. Catan, who was both composer and librettist for this opera, incorporates Neruda’s poetic style into the libretto, and director Ron Daniels and Scenery and Costume Designer Riccardo Hernandez incoporate it into the production. At times projections by Philip Bussman come into view to teach us the essentials of Neruda’s poetic style.

[Below: Philip Bussman’s projections of Pablo Neruda’s poetry; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

“Il Postino” is a docu-opera about a historical figure. Like the docudramas of television-land it is loosely based on a historical fact. When Chilean President Gonzalez Videla outlawed Communism in his nation in 1948, Neruda was hidden in a small Coastal town near Valparaiso. Later Author Antonio Skarmeta’s  book Ardiente Paciencia transformed this biographical fact into a fabulous tale of Neruda living in exile in an Italian fishing village, in which Skarmeta’s invented Neruda’s rather detached invovlement in the daily life of the rural townsfolk.

Obviously, the direct source of the opera was “Il Postino”,  the 1994 Michael Radford film based on Skarmeta’s docu-fantasy. Radford’s well-regarded film was so ill-starred that it is miraculous that the film was even completed. Massimo Troisi was the actor who played Mario Ruappoli, the film’s principal protagonist. Troisi suffered from heart disease so severe that most scenes had to be reconceived to accommodate his incapacity. Tragically, he died on the final scheduled day of shooting. Another actor fractured her arm and was unavailable for much of the time during shooting, but her role could not be recast because she had appeared in irreplaceable scenes with Troisi.

A Metaphorical Elixir of Love

The main story arc is a variant of the familiar tale that Donizetti uses in “L’Elisir d’Amore”. But in “Postino” the character analogous to Donizetti’s Nemorino is the unpaid, love-starved postman, Mario Ruappoli (Charles Castronovo). His small house is dominated by two enormous posters of Italian movie actresses.

[Below: Mario’s Father (Gabriel Lautaro Osuna, right) nags his son Mario (Charles Castronovo, left) to get a job; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

At his father’s insistence, Mario has taken a job, whose only pay is from the tips he receives as a postman for a rural route whose only inhabitant (at least the only one who receives mail) is the poet Neruda. Intrigued by the fact that all of Neruda’s mail is from women, Mario engages Neruda in conversation and, during subequent visits, learns about poetic metaphors.

[Below: Pablo Neruda (Placido Domingo, left) takes time to instruct his postman, Mario (Charles Castronovo) in the use of metaphors in poetry; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

But the unpromising career start for this village Nemorino is the opportunity to meet and engage the sympathies of a future Nobel laureate as counselor for Mario’s amorous quests, rather than a charlatan like Doctor Dulcamara in Donizetti’s romantic comedy. Mario lacks a girl friend, but he instantly clicks with the village tavern’s barmaid Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) during a table soccer game she initiated (nicely staged on a rotating turntable).

[Below: Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri, left) uses a table soccer game to attract the attention of Mario (Charles Castronovo, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The love elixir that Mario serves Beatrice is Neruda-style metaphorical poetry, which arouses Beatrice’s passions and the suspicions of her aunt, Donna Rosa (Nancy Fabriola Herrera).

[Below: Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri) is confronted by her aunt, Donna Rosa (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) who suspects that metaphors are simply a man’s device to exploit a woman sexually; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In moving from one source to opera, it is usually the case that the original source material is abridged to allow for the longer time it often requires to present a story line operatically. Surprisingly little of the plot of Radford’s film is missing from the opera. In fact, the opera is augmented by a lengthy monologue by Placido Domingo’s Neruda, on the horrors that befell Chilean supporters of deposed President Salvador Allende after Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973.

In this extensive passage, marked by historical photographs, Domingo’s vocal gifts, now girded with a distinctive and powerful baritonal lower register, were fully evident. It would not surprise me that this theatrically arresting scene might become a set piece for tenors in concerts in which they have orchestral accompaniment. Nor would it surprise me if the role of Neruda attracts other tenore di forza and heldentenors in the latter parts of their careers.

[Below: Pablo Neruda (Placido Domingo) reflects on the disasters that befell the Chilean Left after Salvador Allende’s fall; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

One of the scenes in the film (for which Radford had to use Troisi’s double and Troisi’s voiceovers to complete) is one in which Mario uses an old dictaphone-like device to record various sounds on the island.

[Below: Philip Bussman’s projections for the episode in which the sounds of the village are recorded; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

As unlikely as this segment might seem as an operatic subject, with its colorful and persuasive projections, it proved extraordinarily effective. At the conclusion of the scene, he records the sounds of the unborn Pablito, his child with Beatrice.

[Below: Mario (Charles Castronovo, center right) and his boss, Giorgio the postmaster (Vladimir Chernov, left), record the sounds of the unborn baby within Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Year of Living Dangerously (in an Italian Seacoast Village)

Another scene making a striking impression is a rowdy demonstration by a red-flag waving crowd of Italian communists. Mario, encouraged by his Communist postmaster boss, Giorgio (Vladimir Chernov), wishing to read a poem he has composed to the demonstrators, is fatally shot in the panic following a police effort to disperse the crowds. Eventually, Neruda and his wife Matilde (Cristina Gallardo-Domas) return to the village of their exile, meet the son of Mario and Beatrice (little Pablito, his namesake), learn of the details of the postman’s death, and receive the tape of sounds that Mario had recorded as a memento of him.

[Below: Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda (Placido Domingo) and his wife Matilde (Cristina Gallardo-Domas) return to the island of their exile; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Catan’s Spanish language operas have been important milestones in three American opera companies (each based in communities with significant Spanish-speaking populations.) San Diego Opera was the first American opera company to premiere a Spanish language opera (“La Hija de Rappacini (Rappacini’s Daughter”) in 1994. Houston Grand Opera had the first Spanish language opera commission – Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” – and a subsequent commission celebrating its 50th anniversary – Catan’s “Salsipuedes” in 2004. Los Angeles Opera opens its 25th season with Catan’s “Il Postino”.

Catan’s “Postino” faces the very long odds that any new opera faces. Of the tens of thousands of operas written throughout history, only a tiny percentage are regularly performed, but Catan’s does have some built-in advantages. In what has proven an efficient way to launch a new work, Los Angeles Opera has co-produced the opera with the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, which will produce four performances in December 2010, and with the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, where four more performances are scheduled in January 2011.

Thus, with 14 performances between three countries (none of the three a principally Spanish speaking nation) “Postino” will be the most-performed Spanish language opera in 2010-11. With superstar tenor Placido Domingo having committed to star in each of the 14 performances, it assures maximum attendance everywhere. If the Los Angeles audience for the performance I attended is testimony to the opera’s immediate prospects, I can report a sustained and enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the work.