Il Postino: You’ve got mail

In Daniel Catán’s opera Il Postino, currently receiving its European premiere at the Theater an der Wien, the postman always rings… well, only once each time he visits, but you shall know him by the hazy seventh chords in the strings, lush and yet tastefully not too lush.  This is perhaps underscored with some understated, vaguely Spanish-sounding dance rhythms. (It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that this opera’s island setting is actually in Italy.  The text is in Spanish, I’ve never seen the movie, and I didn’t buy a program.)  Aribert Reimann, Catán ain’t.  And the libretto, also by Catán and based on the Italian film of the same title, isn’t Medea in terms of dramatic conflict.  It’s pleasant and lovely and easy to listen to.  Unfortunately, I also found it mind-numbingly dull.

But Plácido Domingo is in it, so, you know, there’s the main attraction.

Daniel Catán, Il Postino, Theater an der Wien, 12/14/2010. New production by Ron Daniels, sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernández, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Wiener Symphoniker and Arnold Schoenberg Chor conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Plácido Domingo (Pablo Neruda), Israel Lozano (Mario), Amanda Squiltieri (Beatrice), Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Mathilde).

If you like your Puccini put through a Copland sieve, you’ll love Daniel Catán’s score.  At first, it sounds rather nice.  Actually, the whole thing sounds rather nice.  It is extremely consonant and gentle, the vocal lines are, sorry, Puccini-esque.  The lyricism is cut with a lightness, a slightly impressionistic, slightly Applachian Spring open fields/open stack of thirds quality that saves it from irredeemable sappiness.  It has rhythmic swing, and a few good moments of found music (diegetically provided by a cutely dinky little onstage military band, and an accordionist).  But after a little while, the lack of contrast becomes grating.  Almost the entire opera hangs in a warm, slightly animated torpor of niceness.  Puccini’s chiaroscuro is missing.  It’s like listening to “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” over and over and over.

The libretto seems like a good idea in its basic outlines:  young mailman Mario strikes up a friendship with avuncular local exiled Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, who gives him relationship advice via poetry lessons.  He gets his girl, a lovely barmaid of no distinctive qualities, with minimal problems.  In the second half, political events take over the plot.  These developments had only been clumsily hinted at in the first half, and it feels tacked on.   And I’m not sure why the libretto needs to tell of its most dramatic event, Mario’s tragic last poem, through the intermediary of a narrator.  The music finally turns more dramatic, but not, to me, convincingly so (add an enigmatic sea incident with a healthy dose of Debussy, though).

The libretto is an effective mix of quasi-arias and larger ensembles.  I don’t speak Spanish and can’t comment on its literary qualities, though the several inserted Neruda poems are very good as sung texts even when I was reading them in the German titles.  However, I quickly tired of the libretto’s simplistic harping on the idea of a metaphor, particularly when illustrated by projections in a way that made me think of that classic of American pedagogical video, “Schoolhouse Rock.”  Also, I have grown instantly suspicious of any opera staging that puts its love duet in the midst of a starry firmament.  This is the second one I’ve seen this month to do so, and both times the effect was pure kitsch (I’m looking at you, Les Troyens).

For the most part, though, the production by Ron Daniels is relatively spare.  The stage is covered in bright blue tiles, and many scenes take place in front of projections or a blank screen, or on small rolling set pieces center stage (which probably make this co-production easy to adapt to stages of different sizes).  The very good lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) is a breath of fresh air after last weekend’s Don Giovanni fiasco.  The whole thing is straightforward and not bad, though not particularly memorable, either.  Sometimes the blocking turned static, but most of it is convincing, as these things go.

This opera exists more or less as a Plácido Domingo vehicle, and as that it works.  The role of Neruda was clearly tailored to his current vocal estate, which is still remarkably good.  The sound is still sizable, secure, and has a lot of tonal beauty, though smooth might not be the right word at this point.  The wise old man role is a good one for him at this point, he can project authority while still being endearing in the Ask Grandpa Pablo sections.  As the Postman, Israel Lozano sounded ardent but occasionally labored, yet was endearing.  However, the character is underwritten, and I found his political sacrifice in Act 3 wholly implausible.  Among the women, Amanda Squitieri has a warm, full soprano (which I initially identified as a high mezzo), occasionally tending flat, and was a charismatic presence in another underdefined role (she is a pretty barmaid who loves Mario and… that’s it).  Cristina Gallardo-Domas’s voice has taken some beating, but she did her best as Neruda’s wife Matilde.

Unfortunately, the Wiener Symphoniker, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos, didn’t seem to be having the best night, and sounded out of tune and uncoordinated all evening. 

It is a perfectly pleasant opera, and refreshingly lacking in grand pretensions, but its mushiness is beyond my tolerance, I’m afraid.  You can hear it for yourself on ORF’s oe1 on Saturday.

Also, I have discovered the purpose of Twitter! And it is to trade Parsifal jokes in imaginary pidgin catspeak with prominent Heldentenoren.  Just what I need, more ways to waste time.  Join in here.

Edited to add: I unconsciously ripped off this post title from Mr. Out West Arts.  He thought of it first, and I read his review of the opera’s LA incarnation and probably remembered it!  Credit where it is due!  It is such a very good title.

Photos copyright Armin Bardel/Theater an der Wien.
Video from the LA Opera premiere (same production, slightly different cast):

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  1. Thanks for the review; it's good to get your take on the work (and Placido Domingo in same.) Also, I'd recommend the movie: it is cute but with some chiaroscuro.

  2. Thanks! I just edited to add that the opera will be broadcast on ORF this Saturday, if you want to listen for yourself. I think it might be the performance I reviewed here, at least they were certainly recording last night.