Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Catan's new opera "Il Postino" at LA Opera is CHARMING. (And I want my money back.)

Should you go see “Il Postino” the world premiere of a new opera composed by Daniel Catan at LA Opera? Sure. Is the opera any good? No. Well, it's completely inoffensive. And boring as all living hell. So why should you go see it? Placido Domingo is still in great voice and you should hear him live while you can. Moreover, Grant Gershon conducts (as always) with precision and passion. As MD for the Master Chorale Gershon hasn't had many chances on the podium for LA Opera just yet, but no doubt he will in the future. More reasons to go include: still fresh, 35 year-old Charles Castronov - a socal native, CSU Fullerton grad who started his career as a “resident artist” with the LA Opera when I first got to town in 1996 (What a great way to evaluate my career - compare myself to him, see the ladder he climbed and how he's ascended from intern to playing across from Placido (who's in the smaller role!) and then ask, 'How're you doin', David? You, uh, perform with Placido lately?') Yes, Charles has a clear, clean tenor whose lack of depth or heft is quite fitting for the 'juvenile' role of young lover. It's a small voice, but very pretty and just right for this part. As for the design, you can't go wrong with Jennifer Tipton (though one wonders if she or her assistant has begun phoning it in), and the set was effective in it's modular simplicity even if the basic flooring was dizzyingly busy. The brief video interludes and scrimmed up visual padding was evocative and professional (I especially liked the bells in Act 2). And Lord knows it was sold out to an attentive and enthusiastic audience, of whom, very few walked out - a shocker for a new opera!

Yes, there were many things to recommend about this production.

But the show is a yawner. Let's see why.

In terms of the vocal music, you'd have no idea the piece was composed after 1912. It could be a long lost Puccini, except Catan doesn't know how to start a song effectively and he's abysmal at ending them. I counted 8 times that an aria ended and the audience had no idea whether to applaud. Not because it was one of those “is it the end of a movement, are we supposed to clap now?” moments. Rather, he was writing definite arias and duets, but he usually let the orchestra finish the final phrase just before the singer, leaving them unsupported and the ending without punctuation. He also wasnt seeking seamless elisions between aria and recitative. He clearly wanted applause, he just didn't put any buttons on it, which made the audience downright confused.

The orchestrations show tiny glimmers that the 20th C. occurred, but nothing that would get anyone upset. And dissonance of any kind is kept far at bay. I don't need dissonance in my music at all, but it's hard to overstate how bland the piece was musically. The lovers sang high. The father sang low. Leitmotifs were non existent and melodies disappeared from memory like fog in the San Francisco sun on a warm autumn day. While it was going on, it sure smelt like an opera. A good old opera. No funny business.

But it stirred no passion and held no stakes, pushed no bounds and made no mark.

Did it tell a story well?

Well, it told a story.

Synopsis. Mario, a young man whose mother has died and lives with his dad, gets his first job delivering mail in his hometown - a small Italian island near Naples. The exiled poet Naruda is on his route. Mario falls in love with beautiful girl. He asks Neruda for help to win her heart. He teaches Mario about poetry. Mario speaks to girl in metaphors. They fall in love. Her mother is suspicious of his intentions. They get married. Neruda is allowed to return to Chile and he goes. Mario becomes a man and is sad Neruda never writes, apparently their friendship means nothing to a man so important. Years later Neruda does return. Asks for Mario. Mario's widow tells him he's dead. He took on Neruda's cause (Communism), went to a rally, read a poem he wrote and was killed by Police.


It was a 1994 Italian film directed by Michael Radford based on the fictional novel by Antonio Skármeta. I saw it when it hit theaters back in the day.

Here's the problem with this story as an opera. It's charming.

Charming doesn't work for opera. "Don Giovanni" is not charming. "Das Rheingold" is not charming. Even "La Boheme" is not charming (It's passionate!)

You can have charming scenes, songs or characters in an opera. But the whole thing won't work if it's all just so damn charming. And "Il Postino" is relentlessly charming. The character Neruda is charming. Mario is charming. His courtship is darling. The mother pulling a gun on Mario warning him to stay away from her daughter is even charming.

What's wrong with charming?

It's not dramatic. It's not passionate. It's not gripping. It's not magical. It's not titanic. It's not striking.

That's where opera thrives.

This is why American operas that include “Please pass the butter!” as a sung line fail. Quotidian mundanities of life become absurd when put through the strain of traditional bel canto vocalizations. And while Il Postino has few “butter moments,” it's nothing but.. say it with me... charming. And charm becomes strained when amplified operatically. That's why this opera, based on a 1-1/2 hour film, clocked in at 2:45 and felt 4 hours long.

The composer John Adams once said “It's the mythic realm where opera operates and is most effective.” Now what is mythic is a good question. Adams, and his collaborators Goodman and Sellars, believed that included following Richard Nixon to China to meet Mao. And they considered it to include the Palestinian hijacking of the Achile Laurel. Some might disagree, but I will say, they approached those events as though they were mythic meetings. So the music composed supported the drama that unfolded on the same scale. We may have found it hard to stomach Kissenger singing operatically, but it made the moment... momentous. Perhaps more significant than we all realized it was at the time (I was 2 at the time, so I can say with some certainty, that I didn't really acknowledge how important that day was until much later.)

So what do we have with the opera of "Il Postino"? We have a charming story, well performed in an innocuous musical setting. Many people left the theatre thankful they weren't challenged musically or dramatically. It was all listenable. No one did anything untoward on stage. Remember that bit when the mother came out with a gun because she found Mario had been writing her daughter poetry. That was cute! Yes, most people will exit the Dorothy Chandler thinking they've just seen a nice little opera.

I left disturbingly unmoved.

The greatest impact "Il Postino" had on my life was to remove $49 from my bank account and steal three hours from my life.

There was only one memorable thing in the whole damn piece. A character who sings for a total of 30 seconds. Solo. A cappella. Mario's father. He starts the opera telling the boy he should get a job. Mario says he just got one. End of scene. (Talking about killing the drama. My dad's been on that trope for decades. It just gets juicier by the year. The tension increases. It's awesome. He makes an operatic statement with the same material and no song!) The staging of that particular scene by director Ron Daniels was as confused as the libretto. Daniels moves things around on stage well enough throughout, but the actors rarely seem to know what they're doing and few performers are the live wires of listening they should be whenever their mouth isn't moving.

So what was the memorable line? Mario's father says nothing from that opening scene until the final minutes of Act II at which point he makes a toast at Mario's wedding. He stands and says “Your mother prayed to Jesus that she should live to see her son with a job, a wife and a son, and though she was taken away too soon, he knows she's looking down from heaven with a smile on her face.”

Now that's drama! That's pathos. We've heard nothing of the mother, but we have been told the father never speaks. And in one solo phrase, which was musically devoid of the flowery trappings of all the non-stop “opera” going on around him, I was moved. I was moved hearing the creaky love this shriveled man still feels for his wife. I was moved to hear the struggle for him to speak publicly and emotionally before his son. I was moved to hear a father admit to being proud of his son. These are REAL struggles. And these are archetypal and therefore mythic relationships.

I will admit I thought about my own father and his disappointment with me - having no job, wife or son. And the section hit a very personal chord. I got, in a moment, the grave happiness he'd feel were I to reach that destination of employed and married. And while I've know it intellectually, that moment of opera made me FEEL it. And isn't that what opera is supposed to do? Is that what art is supposed to do. Hold up that proverbial mirror to your own life - to see something that's been there in a new light.

Yup. For 30 seconds this opera kicked ass. The rest of the time it wasn't passing butter, but it was noodling around puppy love and glamourized communism and poetry. It's a toothless, meandering tale sans balls that made me want to see the movie to see and feel the atmospheric sensual indulgence that life on a sleepy Italian island is. Yes, it inspired me to re-watch the film, but it inspired little else. And that's not what I want from my opera.

I want uncontrollable tears down my cheeks when I hear the last tenor scream of “Mimi!” I want to fear for the future of my grandchildren when I am shown the determination of a future empire in Madame Mao's “I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung.” I want to melt with “One Hand One Heart.” I want to get high on the smack of recitative in the blistering repartee between Leporello and Giovanni. I want to be dizzy with multiplicity of voices in “Rigoletto”'s quartet. I want transportation to another world with the prologue in “Das Rheingold.” I want my veins to chill when Sweeney has his “Epiphany.” I want to surrender to elegiac death as the title character descends into the depths wheelchair bound in “Death of Klinghoffer.” I want the inevitability of Butterfly's demise making me scream “No! Don't do it!” in my head, until my throat is hoarse. I want to actually laugh out loud at Figaro's buffoonery. I want the cool, time-bending modernity making my very thoughts sleek through the Knee Plays in “Einstein on The Beach.” I want to be on the Civil War battlefield as a barely trained nurse, feeling the aching helplessness to ease the pain of my boy who's just lost his leg in Adam's “The Wound Dresser.” I want to feel the twisting of the mind to murder in Berg's “Wozzeck.” And I want to totally lose it when the entire chorus breaks into eight and comes down in relenting triplets of holy matrimony and grounded hope in “Make Our Garden Grow”.

Il Postino is just charming.

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