Love let­ter

L.A. Opera’s pre­miere of Daniel Catán’s ‘Il Postino’ delivers a charm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and on a bud­get. A good thing, af­ter the ex­pense of ‘The Ring.’

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - mark.swed@latimes.com

MARK SWED

MU­SIC CRITIC The “Ring” has rung. The com­pany cof­fers are wrung dry. And Los An­ge­les Opera en­tered into its 25th sea­son Thurs­day night with the post­man at the door of the Dorothy Chan­dler Pavil­ion.

Hap­pily, though, “Il Postino” de­liv­ered good news. Daniel Catán’s lyrical new opera pro­vides plea­sur­able con­trast from the late spring and early sum­mer heavy Wag­ner ex­trav­a­ganza.

Based on the pop­u­lar sen­ti­men­tal Ital­ian film — with a few po­lit­i­cal nods to An­to­nio Skármeta’s wise, wry Chilean novel on which the movie was based — “Il Postino” had been a vic­tim of Wag­ner’s re­source-de­vour­ing tetral­ogy. But the fact that the pre­miere of the new opera, orig­i­nally an­nounced for last sea­son, had to be post­poned prob­a­bly turned out for the good.

Un­like the typ­i­cal opera pre­miere, this open­ing night did not seem a rush job. A con­fi­dent cast, con­duc­tor and com­pany had the lux­ury of a year to ab­sorb a new work. The opera was writ­ten for two star tenors: Plá­cido Domingo as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Rolando Vil­lazón as Mario, the young post­man who be­friends him. Vil­lazón pulled out when he un­der­went surgery on his vo­cal cords in April 2009, but the “Postino” post­pone­ment left a rea­son­able amount of time for find­ing a re­place­ment and for Charles Cas­tronovo to learn a star­ring role.

The “Ring” may have taught L.A. Opera a thing or two about pro­duc­tion prob­lem-solv­ing as well. “Il Postino” re­ceives a taste­ful, even lu­mi­nous, stag­ing on what ap­pears to be the cheap. That is some­thing rare for this com­pany, for which bar­gain base­ment tends to look it.

Postino’

Catán’s fourth opera is not in­tended to sur­prise. No doubt most of the au­di­ence will know his opera’s source and feel com­fort­able with the tonal, Puc­cini-in­fused lyri­cism of his score. The com­poser from Mex­ico who lives and teaches in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and who wrote his own li­bretto, fol­lows the 1994 film closely if not slav­ishly. Un­like the novel, which takes place in Chile in the early ’70s at the end of Neruda’s life, the movie moves the story to a fic­ti­tious Ital­ian is­land 20 years ear­lier, dur­ing the Chilean poet’s ex­ile. Catán, how­ever, re­stores a small taste of the pol­i­tics, sex and Skármeta’s won­der­ful dry hu­mor, as well as Neruda’s po­etry, that the ba­nal film left out.

There re­mains, how­ever, the pe­cu­liar­ity of this some­what Ital­ian opera be­ing writ­ten in Span­ish. Plus Domingo (who at 69 would be the right age for the older Neruda of Skármeta’s novel) is meant to por­tray a some­what younger Neruda.

A tenor and a poet

Even so, Domingo has never had a role bet­ter tai­lored for him. From Neruda’s ten­der open­ing love scene with his top­less wife, Matilde, to his stylish ’50s cos­tumes to his fa­ther-knows-best warm hu­mor (Domingo hap­pens to be a gifted comic ac­tor), ev­ery­thing about “Il Postino” seems in­tended to put the famed tenor in his com­fort zone. He typ­i­cally now needs time for his warmup, and Catán eases him vo­cally into the part. Domingo may too eas­ily fall into over­wrought melo­drama in an aria about the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Chile, but his beam­ing avun­cu­lar com­pas­sion, es­pe­cially in his re­la­tion­ship with Mario, is pretty hard to re­sist.

Neruda is a part made for mu­sic. A pro­lific poet, the real Neruda pro­vided the com­poser with all the lyrics he might ever hope for to use as texts for arias. But Mario — a tongue-tied slacker who dis­cov­ers through Neruda the power of po­etry in se­duc­ing the sul­try beauty Beatrice — is more prob­lem­atic. While the char­ac­ter grows more pas­sion­ate, his mu­sic from the start is al­ready full of long­ings he can’t yet ex­press.

Scenes are many and short, and di­rec­tor Ron Daniels works on a sim­ple stage with only a plat­form on which to cre­ate Neruda’s liv­ing room, gar­den, a café, the sea. The stage floor is dec­o­rated with hand­some tiles; they and the stylish cos­tumes are by Ric­cardo Her­nan­dez. Care­ful pro­jec­tions — ocean, demon­stra­tions in Chile, the moon, a starry sky for lovers — by Philip Buss­mann care­fully evoke at­mos­phere with­out over­pow­er­ing. Jen­nifer Tip­ton’s light­ing, with lit­tle more than a strip of neon or a per­fectly placed spot, makes the stage seem a place where po­etry might come to life.

Lyrical work

Catán writes win­ningly for women, and Cristina Gal­lardo-Domâs (Matilde) and Amanda Squitieri (Beatrice) are the se­duc­tive yet grounded coun­ter­parts of their men, both in lus­cious voice. But even Nancy Fabi­ola Her­rera as Beatrice’s aunt, Donna Rosa, is not with­out an in­ner layer of know­ing sweet­ness.

Vladimir Ch­er­nov is a bit of lux­ury cast­ing as Gior­gio, the Com­mu­nist head of the two-man post of­fice. José Adán Pérez is the right-wing politician Di Cosimo, whose heavy-handed cam­paign tac­tics threaten to de­stroy the fish­ing vil­lage.

The end­ing, un­for­tu­nately, is sappy — to say more would mean spoil­ing the plot. But Grant Ger­shon, L.A. Opera’s as­so­ci­ate con­duc­tor, con­trols the dam­age. And he does a lot more than that.

He brings out the rich in­stru­men­tal col­ors of Catán’s score. He lets the lyri­cism flow as from a rich source. He lov­ingly sup­ports voices. He keeps the opera mov­ing. He makes the wed­ding scene, the liveli­est in the opera, sparkle. He in­gra­ti­at­ingly in­te­grates the bits of be­guil­ing ’50s pop mu­sic that Catán pep­pers through­out the work. Catán and the com­pany are lucky to have him.

POET IN EX­ILE:

Lawrence K. Ho

Plá­cido Domingo per­forms as Pablo Neruda dur­ing his time out­side Chile as im­ages show con­tem­po­rary events.

COU­PLE:

Lawrence K. Ho

Neruda (Domingo) dances with wife Matilde (Cristina Gal­lardo-Domâs) in the wed­ding scene.

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