LA Opera’s “Il Postino”


LA Opera’s artful new opera

The floor of the open stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is covered with blue and white decorative tile, reminiscent of Italian ceramic work, and, upstage, a small movable terrazzo seems to float on air like a balcony overlooking the sea. As the lighting shifts and alters, the tiles transform, seeming like the imperturbable surface of the Mediterranean, blue and boundless, moving toward some hazy horizon.

The staging is apt, for it is part of the lyrical world of Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino,” the Mexican composer’s latest opera that was premiered by LA Opera in September.

The opera is based on Michael Radford’s film of the same name, a rather loose adaptation of the 1985 novel, Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, which was set on Isla Negra, Neruda’s home off the Chilean coast, in the last years of poet’s life. Both the film and the opera, however, are set twenty years earlier, in the late 1940s, when the poet, exiled from Chile, traveled and lived in Argentina, Europe and Mexico. It was in Mexico that Neruda met and married his wife, Matilde.

The re-visioning of Neruda’s life in “Il Postino” places the poet and his wife on a small Italian island, Cala di Sotto. While Radford used film’s tendency toward realism to construct a believable, but imaginary, historical narrative, the opera strives to create art within the abstractions of music and theater. And by doing so, it becomes a more moving and concise representation of Pablo Neruda’s life than any historically accurate representation might have been.

The opera is a love story. In the make-believe island’s paradoxical locale—where, surrounded by sea, the islanders struggle to find drinkable water—a young man, Mario, grapples with his future; he doesn’t want to go to America like his brothers or become a fisherman like his father. What he decides to do instead is become the postman for the exiled Chilean writer. And what fascinates him about the poet is the number of letters he receives from women. When Mario falls in love with Beatriz, a beautiful waitress in a local café, he asks Neruda to help him court her through language.


A tribute to poetry

It’s hard to imagine a better source for a libretto than the poetry of Pablo Neruda, with its cloud-like lyricism, inventive metaphoric associations and sheer aural beauty. Neruda is able to express human longing that is both erotic and loving, and he does it directly with none of the self-consciousness that would plague an American poet writing about love. Perplexingly, however, Catán doesn’t choose to use much of Neruda’s work; rather, he sets one poem, “Mañana XXVII,” in apparent completeness and then repeats a few of its phrases as a kind of motif throughout the opera: 

            Naked, you are simple as one of your hands,

            smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round:

            you have moon-lines, apple-pathways:

            naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat…

The libretto doesn’t exactly serve Neruda’s vast oeuvre, even though it follows the historical lead of opera from the repetitions of the baroque stage to Wagner’s leitmotifs. Through the characters’ contemplation of the meaning and exoticism of “metaphors,” the conceptual use of motifs also applies to “Il Postino”.

What the opera’s treatment also shows, however, is how we fall in love with language, how individual words can take on a sensual resonance that is compelling. In one scene, while Neruda mentors Mario, the two sing a series of individual words; Mario’s awe and devotion increasing with each vocable. The words detached from syntax become a kind of vocalese. Simultaneously, a screen is lowered behind the singers across which are thrown illuminations of the words being sung, handwritten and projected in white light across the screen’s neutral surface. As the words hang visually and aurally before the audience, their beauty is inescapable. The moment is mirrored in the love duet between Mario and Amanda, when lighting describes distant stars suspended on the stage’s dark field of sky.

Catán best serves the poet—and poetry—by linking his words with lush and swirling music, infusing the language with a subterranean power. Catán also laced the music with interesting vocal harmonies and unusual musical passages, such as the cheers, shrieks and rattling of the table-top soccer game in the Beatriz’ café and the brilliant onstage band at the lovers’ wedding, which added texture to the melodic ease of the music. In a landscape of contemporary American music, with its devotions to systems and intellectually dense rhythmic and harmonic permutations, Catán’s music has the impulsiveness and generosity of Neruda’s poetry.

And it’s hard to imagine a better cast than the one put together for what is really a tribute to the Chilean writer’s art of poetry. Placido Domingo sang Neruda, and the part is custom-made, allowing him (and most of the cast) to sing in his native language, and in a part that allows his dramatic graciousness and unerring musicality to linger in the eye and the ear of the audience. Velvet-toned Cristina Gallardo-Domâs sang Matilde Neruda. Tenor Charles Castronovo sang Mario in lucid and fresh tones that were matched by Amanda Squitieri as Beatriz. Mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera sang Beatriz’ wildly protective aunt, Donna Rosa, with verve and humor. And Gabriel Lautaro Osuna, as Mario’s father, gave an absolutely knock-out delivery of the a cappella wedding song.

Grant Gershon conducted the splendid LA Opera orchestra. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets and costumes, aided by tasteful media designs by Philip Bussmann. Lighting was designed by the venerable Jennifer Tipton. Ron Daniels directed flawlessly.


—Jaime Robles