Sunday 17 July 2011

Catán - Il Postino

Daniel Catán - Il Postino
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris
Jean-Yves Ossonce, Ron Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Daniel Montenegro, Amanda Squitieri, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Patricia Fernandez, Victor Torres, Laurent Alvaro, Pepe Martinez, David Robinson, Théo Vandecasteele
Paris, France - 30 June 2011
The death of the composer Daniel Catán in April this year, just as the first-run production of his fifth opera Il Postino (The Postman) was being prepared for its performances at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris was undoubtedly a great loss not only to the music world, but to the development of Spanish language opera. Alongside work done by Plácido Domingo, who helped Catán bring this production to the stage, the creation of a new school of Spanish opera was one of the principal aims of Catán, and his ability to do that is demonstrated well in the composer’s final opera. What Il Postino also demonstrates is that Catán’s death is also a great loss to a type of modern opera that can touch on simple but meaningful subjects in a way that is accessible to new audiences.
Those audience-pleasing qualities are already evident in the source material – the novel ‘Ardiente Paciencia‘ by Antonio Skármeta, but even more so from the 1994 film Il Postino directed by Michael Radford - a simple story of a postman on an Italian island who learns about life and poetry from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living there in exile. If the practice of making an opera out of a recent film seems pointless, it’s worth pointing out that opera in the past has always traditionally drawn from the popular entertainments and artforms of its day, whether from popular literature or theatre, and although film does indeed have a rather more “fixed” sense of imagery, it also has many other facets that can be expanded on and explored in opera through other means – primarily musical, but also through a different kind of intimacy through the the theatrical experience. Catán’s Il Postino presents the work wonderfully through this medium.

On the surface however, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in how the opera approaches the subject and how the story is recounted in the film version. The storyline remains simple. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, has been exiled form his home country for his Communist leanings, and has taken up residence on the small island of Cala di Sotto (Neruda was indeed exiled for a period from Chile, but actually lived a short time on the island of Capri, and the story recounted here is otherwise entirely fictional). It’s a poor island, the inhabitants have no running water (despite promises from local politicians), but while his other brothers have left for America to look for work, Mario Ruoppolo remains and is given the job of postman for the new arrival – the only person on the island to receive any mail, and all of it, it seems to Mario, from women. Hoping to gain some understanding of this power that Neruda seems to have over women, and observing his close, sensual relationship with his wife that Neruda has immortalised in poetry (Desnuda – “Naked”), Mario hopes to gain some tips from the great poet. With Neruda’s instruction in the use of metaphors and some borrowing of ideas and actual lines from his work, the postman is able to win the love of Beatrice Russo, the beautiful girl that he has seen working in the local bar.
The opera follows the original film closely, working in short scenes. Catán states that he went back to Skármeta’s source novel in order to bring out the political dimension that is just as important in a consideration of Neruda, his life and his work, but it still remains very much in the background to the fictional love story and the friendship between Neruda and the Postman. What does come out more – and surely justifying the film being made into an opera – is the depth and force of those relationships, which are beautifully sketched in scene by scene, and how they tie into the nature and rhythms of life. These are wonderfully evoked in the libretto and in the music which clearly bears the marks of the acknowledged Puccini and Debussy influences on the composer. The intention is to find the right expression for each scene and emotion, and if that means it evokes other composers, it’s no less effective for it. What helps it is the fluidity with which one scene flows into the next, each building on the previous to deepen the characters, the emotions and the connections between them. The flowing stage design – directed by Ron Daniels – capturing a sense of sea and clouds, carries us smoothly through the first two acts which are the main body of the production.

The libretto is also of vital importance since, when you get right down to it, the opera is essentially about the power of words. They appear on the screens behind and in front of the performers throughout, and, as a Spanish opera, it couldn’t be more important to have the poetry and the sound of those words expressed and highlighted in this way. Words, poetry, sun, sea and clouds are all there in the original film, but what gives them another dimension of expression and – most importantly – what brings them all together, is the power of the music and the singing, and on those fronts, the opera is most persuasive. The themes and their presentation in this respect also reminded me of Richard Strauss – another influence on Catán – particularly Capriccio which considers the construction of words, music and theatre in opera perhaps from a more academic viewpoint, but in intent, Il Postino is also about the individual power of each of these elements combining in a way that gives its subject the best means of expression.
The singing in this production could hardly be faulted. Daniel Montenegro sang well in the the role the part of Mario Ruoppolo on the night I caught the performance (sharing the role in this run in Paris with the equally fine Charles Castranovo), with a fine clear lyrical tenor that befitted the role and differentiated it from the deeper tenor of Domingo. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs made a strong impression as Neruda’s wife Matilde, and the other main female roles of Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) and her mother Donna Rosa (Patricia Fernandez) were also well cast, bringing different tones of light and shade to the singing and to the characteration. It helps too if you have someone as charismatic and still as powerful and emotive a performer as Plácido Domingo in the main role of Neruda, but the singer is also a voice for Spanish opera and it is wonderful to hear him express the rich poetic resonances of the words in the libretto so masterfully in his native tongue. It’s a wonderful role, trailor made for him and he defines it utterly. If Il Postino is to succeed in the future – and one would like to think that it has the necessary qualities that would see it more widely performed – it will need an equally charismatic presence in that role, but that will surely follow.