Critic's Notebook: L.A. Opera's 'Il Postino' on a Latin American high note

At the final performance of "Il Postino" Saturday night, Los Angeles Opera was sold out and then some. I'm told the company scrambled to find seats for the company's music director, James Conlon, who had just flown into town, and for Eloísa Maturén, the wife of Gustavo Dudamel. Several people approached me in front the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion asking if I had an extra ticket to sell.

"Il Postino" is the most successful new opera the company has mounted since its founding 25 years ago. And many, inside and out of the company, are now asking why. Nothing really is new. The opera is based on a popular film. So was "The Fly" two seasons ago; that was a flop. "Il Postino" stars Plácido Domingo as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Domingo created the role of Rasputin in "Nicholas and Alexandra" seven years ago; that was a flop.

Daniel Catán's score for "Postino" is accessible. But this is not his first opera for the company, which produced his "Florencia en el Amazonas" a dozen years ago. "Postino's" popularity has meant something that even last spring's "Ring" fever did not — last-minute funding for a hoped-for DVD (to be fair, Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle, would have been vastly more expensive to film).

The "Postino" phenomenon was the result of no single factor. Domingo's Neruda was clearly the largest draw. He embodies the warmth, sensuality and wisdom of one of the world's most beloved poets. No new role he has created in a long time has better suited him.

The company made many other right choices as well. The cast was ideal. Charles Castronovo, whom I underestimated as seeming a little plain as the provincial Italian postman, Mario, on opening night, was making a big impression by closing night.

Everyone on the stage belonged there. So did the conductor Grant Gershon in the pit. Spending the few extra dollars to hire one of the best lighting designers in the world, Jennifer Tipton, meant that the company could save much more money on sets and still create the lovely atmosphere of an Italian island. Direction, sets, costumes and projections were all smart.

Catán's score channels Puccini. His libretto tells a story well, and he was helped out by access to Neruda's poetry when he needed lines for arias.

Perhaps the clincher is a remarkable Latino-culture moment we are experiencing. During the run of "Postino," — an opera in Spanish written by a composer from Mexico about a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature — the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for literature.

On the very day that Vargas Llosa's name was announced by the Swedish academy, the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened its second season under its popular Venezuelan music director. Dudamel's gala concert featured the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The second half of the program was devoted to music from Mexico, Venezuela and Peru.

As I made my way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the final "Postino," I stopped at REDCAT to grab a quick espresso. There in its small bookshop I noticed the new 2,500-page "Norton Anthology of Latino Literature," a monumental exposition of a culture not widely enough disseminated to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, "Granta," the essential English literary journal, will devote its next issue to the best young Spanish-language novelists.

"Il Postino" isn't, however, nearly as Latin as it might have been. Catán took his inspiration from the soppy Italian film rather than the original novel by Antonio Skármeta. The film moves the story to Italy in the early '50s rather than retain Skármeta's Chile 20 years later, at the end of Neruda's life. And in the opera, the portrait of the poet is idealized. You can only imagine the hue and cry if the company had sanitized Wagner as "Postino" does Neruda. During the period of the opera, Neruda remained a diehard Stalinist even after the Russian dictator's mass murder of Jews and others had been widely exposed.

As I followed the projected English translation during Saturday's performance of "Postino," I was momentarily struck by hearing stray words in Spanish. The sung text wasn't often intelligible, and I realized I had begun to substitute Italian (which I know better than Spanish). While Catán comfortably includes elements of popular Latin American music, his score is essentially Italianate. The setting was so very Italy. It seemed only natural.

But suddenly I understood an essential element of the opera's appeal. "Il Postino" is, as is culture as we know it, a hybrid. Earlier on Saturday I happened to listen to a terrific new CD, "El Nuevo Mundo: Folías Criollas" from the Spanish early music specialist Jordi Savall. It explores the sizzling fusion of Hispanic and Creole styles in 17th and 18th century Latin American music.

Catán, long a resident of Southern California, writes in an Italian/Latin/North American polyglot that most operagoers easily comprehend. A flamenco singer and accordion player fit in just fine during the Italian wedding scene that ends the second act.

But though we do have roots, there is always a danger in one culture watering down another. That happens, unfortunately, to the "Postino" narrative, which removes much of the Chilean political context of the original story.

No one, of course, can say whether "Postino" would have been a hot ticket as "Ardiente Paciencia" ("Burning Patience"), the original title of Skármeta's novel. But just think of the resonance of an opera set in Chile at exactly the same time as the world watched the rescue of the Chilean miners. Two Chilean triumphs wouldn't have been too many.

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