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September 23, 2010

Placido Domingo and Cristina Gallardo-Domas in Il Postino Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Three months after completing a landmark, controversial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Los Angeles Opera opened its 25th Anniversary season Thursday with another ambitious project, the world premiere of Daniel Catán's Il Postino. Without missing a beat, L.A. Opera has jumped right back into the fray by presenting a new opera, the company's sixth, despite having decidedly mixed results with prior premieres. (Remember Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra in 2003 or Shore’s The Fly in 2008?) The good news is that Il Postino is about as far away from any previous disasters as one could hope to get. This is an excellent show with beautiful, accessible music and a strong well-paced narrative. And while it may not be musically groundbreaking, it's hugely successful and entertaining. If you're wondering what a modern opera that is widely popular with contemporary audiences would look like, Il Postino is it.

Catán, who wrote both the music and Spanish-language libretto, has put together a highly faithful adaptation of Michael Radford's 1994 film of the same title and the 1985 novel that in turn inspired him, which you can read more about here. The opera maintains most of the film's narrative structure including frequent scene changes. The biggest additions are substantially increased parts for Pablo Neruda, played by Placido Domingo, and his wife Mathilde, sung here by Cristina Gallardo-Domas. Fleshed out (and sometimes fleshy) love duets between this couple provides a parallel with the developing passion between Neruda's tongue-tied postman Mario, sung by Charles Castronovo, and a local waitress Beatrice, performed by Amanda Squitieri. Catán manages a deft and major substitution in this adaptation as well. Radford's film is slight and often precious. It's held together by little more than Neruda's poetry and the striking visual images of a romanticized Italian seaside village. Without the benefit of those visual images on stage, Catán must rely more directly on Neruda's poetry, which he does with supreme success. Not only are his musical settings of the poems beautiful, he and the design team of director Ron Daniels, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, all manage to create a visual space that emphasizes the romance and excitement of language. When Neruda or Mario sing of poetry, their words appear larger than life behind them in a variety of animated ways. L.A. Opera invested in a large amount of the latest video technology for their recent Ring cycle, and it is used here to great effect, going beyond simply projecting visual backdrops.

Vladimir Chernov, Charles Castronovo and Amanda Squitieri Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

The music itself is neo-romantic in style with a familiar operatic structure including distinct arias and duets. There are some love orchestral passages including Mario's Act III recording adventure of the island's sounds. However while the style is comfortably familiar, it is substantial music that demonstrates Catán's clear talent in writing for the voice. It’s often challenging music to sing and there are some indications that Catán may have made some minor changes to the score to better complement the cast's vocal strengths. There are several beautiful love duets between the two couples and some dramatic arias as well. Perhaps most unusually, the work ends with a short duet for the two tenor roles, Mario and Neruda. Catán uses the music as much more than backdrop. He uses the music to tell the story directly and move events forward. The music Mario sings initially in the opera is disjointed and somewhat jarring and monotone reflecting his character’s inability to voice his inner emotions. However, as he learns about poetry through his friend Neruda, he gains a more lyrical voice. This is also reflected in the love duets between Mario and Beatrice that change over the course of the story from a decidedly one sided affair to a real barn burner towards the end of Act II. There is also an effort to include various ethnic and folk music elements including accordion accompaniment in the wedding reception scene in Act II as well as an a cappella flamenco vocal solo performed by Gabriel Lautaro Osuna in the role of Mario's Father.

Grant Gershon conducted a sizable L.A. Opera orchestra on this evening and worked with a cast that rose to the occasion of the excellent material they had been provided with. At the center of this piece is Placido Domingo. The fact that Domingo can sing the hell out of this role, which he did, isn’t a surprise. Neruda is a huge part with several arias and at least three major duets to boot and Domingo met the acting challenges in the role as readily as the vocal ones. Il Postino is certainly a landmark performance from Charles Castronovo as well. The entire opera centers around the connection the audience feels with Mario, and Castronovo excelled in this. His voice was warm and generally strong throughout and held up very well in his two duets with Domingo. The women were no less impressive. Squitieri's Beatrice and Gallado-Domas Mathilde both managed secure navigation of high notes throughout with Squitieri in particular receiving a huge ovation at the curtain call. She did have to take somewhat of a second seat to the response given to Catán, however, who received a hero's welcome when entering the stage. He should probably get used to it since, I imagine, he'll be hearing plenty more of it from other audiences as charmed by Il Postino as this one was. The show is running through October 16 downtown.



Hooray. Have been waiting for the reviews. I am in NZ and really glad to read yours - the first.
Thanks for the lovely review. I adored Charles Castronovo in the Magic Flute, but this piece seems to make full use of his vocal prowess. Is it being recorded? Does LA opera record anything for DVD? I assume I will be able to hear it on the radio soon.
I don't think there are plans to film the production largely due to the cost issues involved. I know the premiere was not. However, it was broadcast live on KUSC. In recent years, KUSC have broadcast some of the LA Opera performances from the prior season after the end of the Met Opera radio broadcast season in May, so it might come around again.

LAO has filmed some performances for DVD in the past including La Traviata in 2006 with Renee Fleming and Rolando Villazon and Mahagonny in the same year with Audra MacDonald which subsequently won several Grammy awards.
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