Domingo's tenor lifts respectable, but too literal, 'Il Postino' by Daniel Catán

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; C01

LOS ANGELES -- The latest contender for the title of Major New American Opera, Daniel Catán's "Il Postino," which opened at the Los Angeles Opera on Thursday night, is a Spanish-language work based on an Italian film by a British director. This is perfectly reasonable in an art form in which the music, not the words, is supposed to do the talking.

And the language spoken by Catán's lovely score is universal: the safely melodious terrain of international opera. It has lyrical vocal writing, lush orchestral interludes, hints of Verdi and Puccini. There's love. There's death. Add the plot of a popular (and Oscar-winning) film and throw Plácido Domingo into the mix for good measure, and you've got something with considerable crowd appeal, which brought the opening night audience to its feet.

It's certainly a rewarding role for Domingo. The 69-year-old multitasker is always on the lookout for appropriate roles in between his duties as head of the Los Angeles Opera (where this is his fourth mainstage commission) and the Washington National Opera (where his sole new commission was for the young-artist program). The exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the opera as in Michael Radford's 1994 movie, is an aging but still-sexy artist pondering life and art and his legacy. He is world-renowned and has magnetic charisma. Sound familiar?

Domingo is more limited as an actor than Philippe Noiret, who played Neruda in the film, but he approached the 134th role of his career gamely -- even letting himself appear as an old guy, pants belted above his waist, rather than in the matinee-idol guise that Domingo is still well able to muster -- and sang with autumnal ardor about love, fatherland and poetry.

Catán gave him plenty to sing. The opera retains much of the film's dialogue while adding love music for Neruda and his wife, Matilde (Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who is Chilean, looking and sounding exquisite); a buffo-style tenor duet for Neruda and the simple postman Mario (Charles Castronovo), who gradually comes to worship him; and a couple of Neruda's poems, which make perfect arias.

The music showcased Domingo's ringing tone, tapped into an unexpected tender streak with a few high pianissimos and never carried him too far above the staff. This opera would, in fact, be destined to live forever simply as a meaty role for an aging tenor -- if only star tenors, these days, didn't tend to burn out faster than they age. Domingo, more and more, is a miraculous exception.

As a vehicle for Domingo, the opera succeeds beautifully. As an opera, it does tolerably well. Catán's strength is beautiful music (something he already showed in "Florencia en el Amazonas," which is coming to the Maryland Opera Studio in November), and he offers plenty of it here -- sometimes in odd counterpoint to the laconic words of the dialogue it's supporting. This is, of course, a Love Story -- Mario wins the heart of his Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri) through poetry -- and the opera succeeds best at traditionally operatic moments, like the full-bore, Pucciniesque wedding septet.

Its weakness was a dogged fixation on the overblown. The film, for all its realism, is a kind of parable; the opera, and its Brazilian-born director Ron Daniels, often underscored its points with a certain literal-mindedness. The film focused on metaphors; the opera kept making them concrete.

When Domingo sang Neruda's famous love sonnet "Mañana XXVII," a poetic evocation of his naked beloved, he disrobed Gallardo-Domas to the waist (so much for figurative speech). Later, in Domingo and Castronovo's duet, the words beat the metaphor theme just about to death: It was the music that made the real point (about the shared excitement of an older mentor and a younger student, backed up by the contrast between Domingo's plummier sound and Castronovo's rawer, lighter one).

Literal, too, was the conducting of the estimable Grant Gershon, who led with such force that the generally respectable singers were sometimes hard to hear over the swells and falls of the music, and the little curlicues of embellishment, like rolled R's, that punctuated the score. Squitieri, an alumna of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, was a little overemphatic as Beatrice, stripped of her prototype's smoldering mystery, but had some lovely vocal moments. Nancy Fabiola Herrera was a solid anchor as her scolding aunt Donna Rosa; Vladimir Chernov had fun in the semi-comic role of Mario's boss, Giorgio.

But literalness gave rise to some fine ideas, like casting Gabriel Lautaro Osuna, a flamenco singer, as Mario's father. In the midst of the operatic voices, he stood up at his son's wedding to sing a toast in a plainspoken vernacular, with moving dignity.

My quibble with "Il Postino" would be that there weren't enough telling moments like this. The weight of the opera score crushed some of the details beneath it: The islanders descended into mere local color (an obligatory fisherman's chorus was an unnecessary interpolation); Mario and Beatrice became simply another cute opera couple. Even the tragedy at the end (no spoilers here) was morphed from the specific to the generically heroic.

Opera is large-scale, but it's also theater -- it's strengthened by depicting the particular. "Il Postino" takes refuge, too often, in generalities, poetry and lovely music. Still, there are worse things to hide in -- and worse criticisms to make than to say that Catán has written a very lovely opera. It will continue on to Paris and Vienna this season; no word on whether it will come to Washington.

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