After blowing a hole in the budget with a controversial Wagner “Ring” cycle in the midst of a sour economy, it would be understandable if the Los Angeles Opera reverted to a holding pattern of bread-and-butter standards this season. But clearly this company and its risk-taking general director Placido Domingo — in whom the board of directors just expressed its confidence by extending his contract through 2013 — don’t operate that way. Instead, L.A. Opera opens the 2010-11 season with a world premiere, but one cannily and effectively aimed right at its mainstream audience. The company could use a hit, and judging from the results and the tumultuous response to “Il Postino” (“The Postman”) Thursday night, they may well have one here.
Daniel Catan’s opera was inspired by the multiple Oscar-nominated 1996 film of the same name and the novella “Ardiente Paciencia” by Antonio Skarmeta. Ultimately, the film had a much greater influence, for the opera follows the movie’s storyline (which is somewhat different than the book), adopts its locale (a fictitious Italian island rather than one in Chile), its time period (the early 1950s rather than the Allende-era ’70s), and its title (even though the opera is sung in Spanish).
Yet the opera has more of a political slant than the film, playing up the character of the famed Chilean poet/activist Pablo Neruda and his role as mentor to the shy young postman Mario Ruoppolo who wants to woo a barmaiden. Enter Domingo as Neruda — a character that, at 69, he inhabits to the manner born. He gets to be an avuncular role model for Mario, a mature yet passionate lover, a fervent Chilean patriot — and in the end, when learning of Mario’s death in a political riot, he conveys devastating stoicism.
Fortunately, “Il Postino” is far more than just a backdrop for the celebrity tenor’s 134th role. The piece has heart and a sturdy structure, with short scenes and deft set changes with sliding backdrops, rolling platforms and projected images making for smooth transitions. Acts I and II run together in 88 uninterrupted minutes — a long haul, but one doesn’t feel any fatigue.
Catan proudly wears his stripes as a composer who writes in a lush, Romantic, Puccini-esque manner in the 21st century, with especially grateful writing for the voice. Yet he also shares with Puccini a sense of humor and contrast, punctuating the Neruda/Mario scenes with funny accents in the muted brass. This is new music written for a general opera audience that still flocks to “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” but it doesn’t overdo the sentimentality and even possesses passages of eloquent beauty, like the instrumental prelude to Act III.
The cast is strong and well-balanced; even the somewhat daring idea of casting Mario as a tenor alongside the great Domingo works because this Mario (Charles Castronovo) has the vocal goods to provide a credible foil as his character grows as a poet and as a man. After some early imbalances between the voices and orchestra were smoothed out, Grant Gershon conducted with sweep and grace. And in a tribute to the strength of this new work, the loudest ovation at the curtain call went to the composer.