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Opera review: L.A. Opera premieres 'Il Postino'

September 24, 2010 | 12:51 pm
Postino 2
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 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, where bargain basement tends to look it.

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.

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 warm up, 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.

Postino 1Neruda 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.

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.

-- Mark Swed

“Il Postino,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. Wed., Oct. 5 and Oct 16, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 2 and Oct. 9, 2:00 p.m. $20 - $270. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com. Running time: 2 hours, 52 minutes.

Top photo: Plácido Domingo as Pablo Nerudo in Daniel Catán’s "Il Postino." Bottom photo: Charles Castronovo as Mario. Photographs by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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