Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Feeling Blue

Blue is the color of love for a shy wannabe poet on a remote Italian island in Daniel Catan's new opera, Il Postino, which is currently having a rapturous world premiere production through October 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Locals, whether opera aficianados or not, shouldn't miss it.

I didn't remember much about Michael Radford's 1994 movie Il Postino (The Postman), despite its having been nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, and winning one for Best Score. Watching the opening night performance of this opera inspired by it, however, brought much of the film back to me while improving upon it.

The plot and libretto weave multiple love stories, enlivened by equal doses of humor and sorrow. Real-life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (a nicely modulated, down-to-earth performance by opera superstar Placido Domingo) and his adoring wife, Matilde (beautiful soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas), have been exiled to the tiny, fictional island of Cala di Sotto due to Pablo's Communist leanings. There, they meet lonely postman Mario Ruoppolo (an awesome, moving turn by lyric tenor Charles Castronovo), who dreams of becoming a poet like Neruda and longs for the heart of the tempestuous Beatrice (the very impressive Amanda Squitieri).

Mario and Pablo become unexpectedly close friends through their mutual love of language, especially metaphors. Love blossoms between the newly-empowered Mario and Beatrice, much to the chagrin of Beatrice's domineering, gun-toting aunt, Donna Rosa (a very funny Nancy Fabiola Herrera). Too soon, though, the Nerudas' exile is ended and they are called home to Chile, leaving Mario and the other locals they have befriended to feel abandoned just as a sleazy politician rises to power on Cala de Sotto.

Il Postino offers glimpses into the love of fathers for their sons, of husbands and wives for each other, and of artists for their art. The strongest love story in the opera, however, is between Pablo and Mario. While it isn't romantically or sexually motivated, the men's affection for one another and the chemistry between Domingo and Castronovo in the roles will prove especially touching to gay viewers/listeners.

Catan's lyrics aren't as strong as his music (and several of us critics were questioning the English translation used for the supertitles during intermission), but the score is memorable and frequently gorgeous. "Desnuda" ("Naked") is a breathtakingly intimate duet between Pablo and Matilde at the opera's start, and its refrain and concept are invoked later by Mario and Beatrice. I do wish the chorus had a larger singing role; the members serve more as scenery movers, only providing vocal support a few times. Grant Gershon conducts with his trademark sensitive assurance.

The evocative, relatively simple sets by Riccardo Hernandez are impressive, as are his costumes. Appropriate in light of the color with which Mario defines his love for Beatrice, most of the sets involving the two characters are blue. Occasional use of a blue neon border, possibly left over from LA Opera's techno production of The Ring Cycle last season, around the proscenium is too much but this is one of very few design excesses.

Il Postino is movingly directed by Ron Daniels, especially during the opera's powerful final moments. Indeed, I was tearful as the curtain fell, more so than I've been at any recent stage performance. Numerous audience members around me were sniffling and dabbing at their eyes as well. The opening night performance received a 10-minute standing ovation from an astute crowd, clearly signaling the arrival of a promising new work.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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