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The joy of operatic poetry

The joy of operatic poetry

Downtown Los Angeles, 25 September 2010 (LA Downtown News) -- Opera fans may be forgiven for anticipating a new work with scepticism — even fear. Composing a functional opera is harder than it looks, and for some decades, new works have often proven to be tuneless ironies or awkward experiments. Recent L.A. disasters like The Fly and Nicholas and Alexandra are still fresh.

So it’s a great relief that L.A Opera’s Il Postino, which premiered last week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is a modest but genuine delight, a true lyric romance. Local composer Daniel Catán has transformed the Oscar-winning 1994 movie by Michael Radford and the original book by Antonio Scármeta into a charming and often moving mix of love, poetry and tragedy. Singers are allowed to express emotion. Music is allowed to soar.

Il Postino tells the fictional story of Mario Ruoppolo, a shy and awkward postman who develops a friendship with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living briefly in political exile on a small island off

the Italian coast. Mario is struck by Neruda’s passionate love for his wife, Mathilde, and he discovers the power of metaphor to seduce a local barmaid. When Neruda leaves the island, Mario must fall back on his own meagre imagination. It’s a story about the deep human need for poetry, but also one about class and the politics of the mid-20th century. Despite the title and the setting, Catán’s libretto is in Spanish — better to capture Neruda’s verse.

There are still a few kinks to work out in the first act. We could use a scene that better develops the social landscape of the island and the presence of the sea. Musically, Catán struggles against the modern tendency to write a thin vocal line above rich orchestration, or to needlessly repeat musical and scenic ideas. There were some awkward transitions to more fully realized, almost Puccini-like passages.

The production itself starts tentatively, with spare, low-budget sets and little use of the superb projection technology that L.A. Opera has put in place.

A little more of the chorus would be preferable.

In the second half, both Catán and the production designers find their footing and begin to work with more confidence. Catán delivers a depth and quality to Mario which is lacking even in the excellent film. The music gains in subtlety and purpose. The themes expand. Also, at last, the design team kicks in with some beautiful projections (Philip Bussman) when the Postman goes out to record the sounds of the sea, intending to send the tapes back to Neruda, far away in Chile.

Plácido Domingo, at 69, is stellar as Neruda in late middle-age. He projects a gentle fatherliness, but he has lost none of his fire or his voice. The opera has been written for two tenors, and it is wonderful to see the masterly Domingo and the talented Charles Castronovo (as the Postman) onstage like father and son, mentor and rising star.

Castronovo, familiar to L.A. audiences as a resident artist in the late 1990s, perfectly captures the innocence and awkwardness of Mario, recalling the performance of Massimo Troisi in the 1994 film. He has a large and compelling voice, solid throughout the range, which he can control to a fine, but always-masculine sweetness.

Cristina Gallardo-Domâs is a sexy, full-throated Mathilde, wildly in love with Neruda, his poetry and his Communist mission. We believe her as his mature, but still passionate muse, and her duets with Domingo, after an awkward start, were electric. Amanda Squitieri makes for a fine, if perhaps too-innocent Beatrice, Mario’s love and muse.

Director Ron Daniels, like everyone else, is a bit tentative in the opening. He could have brought Squitieri and Castronovo together with a more physical and satisfying passion.

The premiere was conducted with great exuberance by Grant Gershon, who in the first half struggled a little to find the right balance between orchestra and singers, but ultimately settled down in the second half and brought the opera home.

Many people around the world, reading him in many translations, consider Pablo Neruda to be the greatest poet of the 20th century — but his verse is still loved more by the masses than by the professors. He was not a formalist and he had no interest in urbane academics. His poetry boils and erupts. It throws out explosive metaphors and confident truths. It is a poetry of love and politics which has no patience for carefully constructed ironies. A little of Neruda’s deep joy-in-living invaded the world of film. It is worth celebrating that it has now invaded opera.

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