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Daniel Catan's `Il Postino' opens with Domingo

By Ronald Blum
Associated Press Writer / September 24, 2010

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LOS ANGELES—Verdi and Puccini didn't have to compete with DVDs.

Daniel Catan, his creative team and singers do, giving them a daunting task as they worked on "Il Postino," the opera version of the much-loved 1994 film.

Given its world premiere Thursday on the opening night of the Los Angeles Opera's 25th anniversary season, "Il Postino" delivers in a way few modern operas do. Catan has created a throwback, with arias, duets and lush tonal music, closer to the style of Puccini than of Catan's contemporaries.

The cast, with 69-year-old tenor Placido Domingo as the poet Pablo Neruda and 35-year tenor Charles Castronovo as the wide-eyed postman Mario Ruoppolo, earned a five-minute standing ovation by the appreciative crowd at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Catan, a Mexican composer known best previously for his "Florencia en el Amazonas (Florence in the Amazon)" in 1996, has written a crowd-pleaser that faithfully if not exactly follows Michael Radford's movie version. If the music, with shimmering strings and dreamy woodwinds, doesn't completely build in a long arc, it is because Catan was perhaps too faithful to the movie, with its many scene shifts.

In adopting Antonio Skarmeta's 1985 novel "Ardiente Paciencia," Radford moved the locale from the Isla Negra in Chile to an Italian island. While the book was set during the rise and fall of Marxist President Salvador Allende from 1969-73, the movie and the opera are shifted to the 1950s. The book removes much of the political backdrop, but Catan restores a bit of it by giving Domingo a key aria.

While the action is in Italy, Catan writes the opera in Spanish. It's a bit jarring at first, but after a little bit, the awkwardness dissipates.

In the familiar plot, Mario Ruoppolo becomes a postman with Neruda, the famous Chilean poet living in exile, as his sole customer. Mario notices all the letters Neruda receives from women and becomes inquisitive, and Neruda introduces him to poetry.

Around the same time, Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo, who works in the village cafe. Neruda helps bring them together, they are married and Neruda then finds he can return to Chile. In the final act, Neruda returns to the island years later and finds tragedy has occurred.

There is one intermission in Catan's three-act composition, after the second act, making the first half about twice as long as the 45-minute conclusion.

With Catan writing for the strongest part of Domingo's voice and avoiding the very upper register, Domingo is a marvel of standout singing and suave acting. This is his 134th role, easily unequaled by other star tenors, and because he chooses his repertoire carefully, he shows no sign of slowing down. In the same way Philippe Noiret did in the movie, Domingo lent an educated elegance to Neruda. His voice was strong, showing no signs of the cold that afflicted him during the dress rehearsal.

Castronovo, taking a role originally intended for Rolando Villazon, made Mario his own in the same way Massimo Troisi did in the movie. With facial movements, body stance and a refreshing innocence, along with a bright tenor filled with color, Castronovo was as much a star as was Domingo.

Soprano Amanda Squitieri sang Beatrice, the sexy waitress made famous in the movie by Maria Grazia Cucinotta, moving gracefully across the stage and pairing it with a compelling voice in a manner few singers do.

Cristina Gallardo-Domas was Matilde Neruda, a role Catan expanded from the movie. Opening with a daring, back-to-the-audience topless scene, she helped contrast the older couple with the younger. Catan wrote her vocal line in a way that largely avoided her upper register, which can turn strident.

Rounding out the fine ensemble cast were Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Beatrice's livid aunt Donna Rosa), Vladimir Chernov (Giorgio), Jose Adlan Perez (Di Cosimo), Gabriel Lautaro Osuna (Mario's father) and Christopher Gillett (Prest).

Conductor Grant Gershon emphasized the beauty of the score over attempts to drive it forward during some stretches. Director Ron Daniels handled many difficult scene changes smoothly and brought out what appeared to be -- but certainly were not -- effortlessness performances. Jennifer Tipton's lighting and Philip Bussmann's projections memorably created a dreamy Italian paradise.

There are five more performances through Oct. 16. A co-production of Austria's Theater an der Wien and France's Theatre du Chatelet, "Il Postino" opens in Vienna on Dec. 9 and in Paris on June 20.

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