Friday, September 24, 2010

Il Postino in world premiere at LA Opera

Domingo’s enduring, endearing dominion

Photo: Robert Millard

Il Postino (The Postman)
Music and libretto by Daniel Catán
Conductor, Grant Gershon
Director, Ron Daniels
Scenery and costume designer, Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton
Projection designer, Philip Bussmann
Choreographer, David Bridel

Principal cast
Pablo Neruda, Plácido Domingo
Mario Ruoppolo, Charles Castronovo (title character)
Beatrice Russo, Amanda Squitieri
Matilde Neruda, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs
Donna Rosa, Nancy Fabiola Herrera
Giorgio, Vladimir Chernov
Di Cosimo, José Adán Pérez
Mario’s Father, Gabriel Lautaro Osuna
Priest, Christopher Gillett

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center
Los Angeles, California
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

He came. He sang. He conquered. He got a contract renewal - even before he sang.

Plácido Domingo, tenor extraordinaire at the age of 69, but who's counting, just debuted his 134th role. This number is the operatic equivalent to Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's combined home runs. The man remains a vocal phenomenon. And yes, his contract as LA Opera's General Director was just renewed for two more years from this coming June.

But I digress. Let's pick up the action a few days ago where that eternally stalking nemesis of opera, the nail-biting economics of production costs, threatened to hem in an opening night.

The day after the struggling "Recovery Summer" officially staggered to the finish line, it was autumn and the LA Opera's own recovery season commenced with the world premiere of Daniel Catán's Il Postino, a work tailor-made for a certain tenor who also runs an opera company. The need for recovery, in case you've been napping all year, stems from the financial dive that LA Opera took mounting Richard Wagner's massive Ring Cycle, which concluded just three months ago.

A lot was riding on this premiere. But that's why they pay Domingo to work both sides of the lights. His company, with as much heart and pluck as its director, goes all in on a bet when the chips are down.

The 1994 Il Postino had been a "little" movie with an art-house feel, a poignant slice-of-life that struck a chord with the public. It's a gentle story: humble Italian postman meets local girl while famous exiled poet teaches him metaphors. Could this fragile filmic narrative strike a larger-than-life musical chord in opera?

The short answer is yes. Catán's Postino is a well-crafted, old-fashioned romantic opera, a crowd-pleaser with a conservative but genuinely expressive musical vocabulary. The score's Puccinian style is augmented with devices from Ravel, Britten, and Richard Strauss. Touches like a simple fisherman's accordion and a big ensemble tango lend it color and locale. Its composer does have a fondness (weakness?) for unresolved cadential ninth-chords, which touchingly, if repetitiously, end both a big Act III scene, and later the the opera itself.

The score suits its subject. The work's fitfully tepid drama, alternating humorous and brooding moments until a final denouement rises to tragedy, takes its sweet time in building emotional steam, but composer-librettist Catán gratefully resisted adding gratuitous spice to the existing narrative.

Ron Daniels' debut as Postino's stage director was fortunate. His clean-lined, minimalist concept proved effective in telling a story with many levels and much incident. He was aided by David Bridel's unobtrusive and naturalistic choreography. Philip Bussmann's stunning projections - impressive on both the stage and undoubtedly in the accountant's office - made unnecessary the construction of costly set pieces, and lent a quicksilver quality to the work's many scene changes.

Particularly effective was the sequence of projected sea waves, fisherman nets, starry nights, and town bells (the latter accompanied by a theme lifted from Strauss). Riccardo Hernandez's elaborate, picturesque props and period costumes filled out the rest of the handsome décor, a notable scene being Mario's lonely boat resting on shore, symbolic of both his greatest quest and its cessation.

A few months ago, the veteran Domingo had performed here a baritonal tenor role in Die Walküre and there an outright baritone role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Any worries that the Spanish-born, Mexican-reared Domingo had lost his mojo as a lyric-dramatic tenor were soon allayed. With a voice the envy of many a tenor thirty years his junior, he triumphed as the Chilean poet and social crusader, Pablo Neruda. His ring was clarion and the voice of even tone throughout the register, an occasional glottal low note of little consequence. Domingo's acting was pared down from the usual opera melodramatics to a nuanced wistfulness as the brooding, later regretful poet-leader of national struggle.

As his self-selected acolyte, tenor Charles Castronovo's title character, the feckless Mario, more than held his own in various scenes with Domingo. The apprenticeship in the opera could as easily mirror a similar real life relationship between the two Hispanic tenors. Castronovo's voice, with its superb technique and lovely bloom, is a younger and at this stage still a smaller version of his famous mentor's, but very much successor material, as was revealed in their side-by-side tutorial duet on the meaning of "metaphors."

Soprano Amanda Squitieri's winsome barmaid, Beatrice, was a perfect foil for Mario's starry-eyed idealist. With a young voice that sparkles as brightly as her smile, Squitieri stole hearts on both sides of the proscenium. A dramatic standout was her first encounter with Mario in the bar, where her competitive, seductively engaged character triumphs in an impromptu match of pinball soccer. Here, as elsewhere, the telling lighting designs of Jennifer Tipton enhanced the drama, throwing a bright glow from the game table into the intense faces of the lovers-to-be.

Fine performances came from supporting cast members, their characters well-etched by a savvy Catán: soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs as Neruda's adoring wife, Matilde; mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as the comically skeptical Donna Rosa, gun-toting mother of Beatrice; baritone Vladimir Chernov as ironic leftist Giorgio, best friend of Mario; baritone José Adán Pérez as the slimy political strongman, Di Cosimo; guitarist-baritone Gabriel Lautaro Osuna as Mario's simple but loving father; and tenor Christopher Gillett as a wise priest whose intervention with a Donna Rosa on the prowl is a lot better timed than that of Romeo's Friar Laurence.

"Great sorrows in little hearts" was the guiding principle of Giacomo Puccini. What Catán established in the early scenes of this opera were ordinary sorrows in little hearts, expressed in big, melodious orchestrations a little ahead of the drama. But the drama soon caught up and quickened the second and third acts with a secondary narrative. Neruda's suffering for his oppressed Chilean people had by then fired up Mario's political activism against Di Cosimo's fraudulent political leadership, even as the younger man was aware that the departed Neruda had probably forgotten him. Neruda's wrenching return, too late for the reunion of teacher and pupil, was poignantly - and masterfully - depicted in Catán's concluding scene.

Some will criticize Catán's score as not spiky enough for today's audiences. But this composer knows his mind and owns a technique fully capable of expressing his dramatic intentions. Just as Puccini had made more polished and sensuous the crude Verismo tradition he inherited, so Daniel Catán has made subtler the Puccinian tradition to fit this less overtly intense drama. This is a civilized and gentle tragedy brought to life by a gifted artist and craftsman. Compared to other premieres the LA Opera has offered in recent years - Grendel, Nicholas and Alexandra, or The Fly, for instance - this work's musical expressivity soars high. It should stay with us for years to come.

There was another mentoring mission at work on Thursday evening. Occasional conductor Domingo had assigned LA Opera chorus master Grant Gershon - better known as the director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale - conducting responsibilities for his first season opener. In the event, Gershon's orchestra initially enveloped some of the voices as they warmed up to the evening's tasks. But he soon had the orchestra calmed down. Gershon's was a propulsive, idiomatic musical leadership, with clear cues to the singers on a potentially tense opening night. He has grown to prominence locally through a combination of hard work, native talent, and calm persistence. Gershon has now arrived as a preeminent musical force.

Il Postino, the little opera that could, had momentarily banished memories of the high-concept, regietheater Ring Cycle and returned the LA Opera to what it does best: provide great singing vehicles for lovely voices. And it had not broken the budget bank in doing so.

But more than that, this opera had sung in the apt but still unusual operatic language of Spanish. That made it feel more akin to an Hispanic than an Italian spirit, even with its Italian title and setting. Sonorous words like azul, luminosa, mariposa, and desnuda were projected on the stage's backdrop as its poet protagonist taught his novice pupil the art of metaphor and poetic perception. They announced also the operatic potential of a new world, more properly The New World.

Audience members from the longstanding Hispanics for LA Opera support group were not the only misty-eyed ones seeing the enchanted words of their native language floating on a heavenly blue background. With a composer who was born in Mexico and is now a Los Angeles resident and a cast consisting predominantly of Latin Americans, some native to our city, this production mirrored demographic changes underway in neighborhoods just blocks away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's uptown doors of gloss and glass.

Bravo to an opera company whose best days are assuredly still ahead of it.

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected].

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