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‘Il Postino’ by Center City OperaBY: Steve Cohen 05.26.2012
Center City Opera Theater has launched an ambitious initiative to mount Hispanic opera productions. It got off to a good start this month with Daniel Catán’s Il Postino. Just one quibble: Il Postino isn’t very Hispanic.
Is there a Hispanic in the house?STEVE COHEN
Center City Opera Theater is into a good thing. This 13-year-old company, which specializes in new works in intimate venues, launched a Hispanic Opera Initiative this month with the East Coast premiere of Daniel Catán’s opera, Il Postino.
Since Hispanics comprise a growing portion of urban populations, this series seems to tap an important demographic. In addition, surely there is a rich cultural vein to be explored.
The Opera Initiative is designed to present Spanish-language opera and to commission a new opera written by Hispanic Americans. Over the next few years the company will produce all four of Catán’s operas.
That Mexican-born composer, who died suddenly in April at the age of 63, encompassed multiple cultures. He was descended from Turkish and Russian Jews, educated in England and lived in the U.S. His music is eclectic and easy on the ears. Il Postino— based on the 1994 Italian film of the same name— was warmly received in its 2010 Los Angeles premiere with Placido Domingo, and also by Philadelphia audiences last week.
Neither salsa nor meringue
Just one small quibble: Notwithstanding Catán’s Spanish-language libretto, Il Postino isn’t very Hispanic. Aside from one tango used during a wedding scene, there’s almost no music that most people would identify as “Spanish.” No hints of Miami Beach or Puerto Rico. No salsa. No merengue. You’ll see and hear more Latin music on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
Nor does Il Postino contain any faux-Spanish music, as in Chabrier’s España, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole or Bizet’s Carmen.
Did I mention that the story is set in Italy (even the title is Italian) and all the characters save two are Italians?
The fictional story concerns the real-life relationship between the Chilean romantic poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and a simple postman. It adheres closely to the film that was co-written and starred Massimo Troisi, who suffered a fatal heart attack the day after filming ended.
Neruda has been exiled to a small island off the coast of Italy because of his communist political beliefs. His wife accompanies him. On the island, a simple fisherman’s son named Mario, dissatisfied with his father’s trade, finds work as a postman. He hand-delivers Neruda’s mail by bicycle and becomes influenced by Neruda’s political views and his poetry in the process.
After Neruda teaches him how to use metaphors romantically, Mario wins the love of a local waitress, Beatrice. (Her smile, he tells her, spreads like a butterfly on her face.) At their wedding, Neruda receives the welcome news that he has been cleared of criminal charges in Chile, so he leaves the island.
In the opera’s last act, Mario writes to Neruda but never receives a reply. Finally comes a formal letter from Neruda’s secretary, asking Mario to send some of Neruda’s belongings back to Chile. Poignantly, Mario realizes that what he thought was a friendship between the two men didn’t really exist. While awaiting the birth of his child, Mario writes a poem and tries to recite it at a communist demonstration in Naples, where he is killed by the police.
Critics in Los Angeles and in Europe, where Il Postino debuted earlier this year, found Catán’s music reminiscent of Puccini and Debussy. That’s an over-generalization. The only Debussy I hear is the use of arpeggios and gradual upward chordal changes. The Puccini flavor isn’t copied from the popular Bohème or Butterfly; rather, Catán sounds a bit like the older Puccini who wrote Il Tabarro and Fanciulla Del West– with thicker orchestration, fewer traditional arias and a considerable amount of parlando recitation.
Mostly I liked Catán’s lush romantic music. But there’s something to what one Viennese critic wrote: that Catán’s seasoning seems more like honey pot dusted with powdered sugar than anything Chilean.
Too young and hunky
The male leads are both tenors. Because the 70-year-old Domingo was cast as Neruda, that part was written in darker, autumnal, almost-baritonal hues, while the postman has lighter, lyrical passages. In the Philadelphia cast, the Mexican-American tenor Hugo Vera sang Neruda with a solid dramatic tenor that didn’t provide sufficient contrast with the voice of Jorge Garza (also Mexican-American) as the postman. Also, Vera was too young and hunky to play the elder statesman Neruda.
Three women— respectively, Jennifer Hoffmann, Jennifer Braun and Alexandra Roth— were wonderful as Neruda’s wife, Mario’s girlfriend/wife and her mother.
The company’s artistic director, Andrew M. Kurtz, led the 20-person Symphony in C in a reduction by Stefan Kozinski of the originally large orchestration.
Catán’s widow spoke before the performance and explained that her husband wrote a semi-nude love scene for Neruda and his wife to show that older men and women can still be sexually attracted. The nudity is contextual, as Neruda sings a passage from one of his poems that begins: “Naked, you are as simple as one of your hands…” In Los Angeles, Domingo removed the blouse from soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs. But I saw no nudity in this production. That was needless caution.♦
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