Review: Center City Opera’s fine ‘Il Postino’

A scene from the University of Houston production of “Il Postino,” with the socially awkward mail carrier speaking with the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on a quaint island.
A scene from the University of Houston production of “Il Postino,” with the socially awkward mail carrier speaking with the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on a quaint island.
Posted: May 19, 2012

In its East Coast premiere, Daniel Catán’s operatic version of the film Il Postino is infinitely more engaging than one could ever have predicted from an opera that has little exterior action, characters that aren’t especially heroic, and music that hasn’t a fraction of the usual tension of the opera’s 20th-century predecessors. You aren’t likely to walk away from the Center City Opera Theater production, which opened Thursday at the Prince Music Theater, thinking you’ve seen a masterpiece. But the experience — with beautiful music and scenes set by computer-animated projections suggesting the Italian island setting — is like a mini-vacation to a mellow place that might not be a viable residence but makes for a haunting visit.

When he died last year at 62, Catán was beloved but rarely heard in many of the usual U.S. opera centers. Part of the new tonality school of composers, he went a step further: He could create drama without dissonance, sometimes by taking his fundamentally lush harmonic language and pushing it beyond the ordinary bounds in order to give his stories their needed dramatic contour. Il Postino’s plot was right for his ability to make the most common inner transformations, like falling in love, feel important. But he wasn’t one to pretend that the last 50 years of music hadn’t happened. His harmonic modulations go to all sorts of unexpected places. Often, the music’s soul lies in the writing for winds.

The story itself — about the real-life poet Pablo Neruda befriending a postman while in political exile from his native Chile on a quaint island — is a third cousin of Cyrano: The older poet supplies metaphors for a younger, less talented seducer. The opera version was a clear-cut success at its 2010 Los Angeles premiere.

Catán authorized this production by Philadelphia’s upstart chamber opera company shortly before his death. Large companies plan years in advance, and he knew that even the greatest new operatic hit would take years to disseminate. Center City Opera is the sort of smaller, more agile company he was likely to encourage. That doesn’t mean, though, that a company with an annual budget of under $500,000 wouldn’t have an uphill battle doing justice to Il Postino. Plus, it was faced with casting roles conceived for none other than Plácido Domingo (Neruda) and Rolando Villazon (Mario).

As it shook out Thursday, you knew you weren’t experiencing the ultimate Postino, but (in a sign of how well it went) you didn’t long for the story’s original iconography, from Domingo (in the operatic version) to Massimo Troisi (on screen). Center City’s Neruda, Hugo Vera, was younger than Domingo, almost like a big brother rather than a father to Jorge Garza’s Mario, who was less glamorous than Troisi but far more believable as a socially awkward guy who thinks he can’t get girls without being a golden-tongued poet. Also, these tenors were perfectly credible vocally, and were so far inside their characters that you could forget anyone else ever played them. The opera ends contemplatively with a duet between the two (one dead, one alive) that, on Thursday, was mesmerizing. And how many companies are so lucky as to have a soprano such as Jennifer Braun, who not only sang Beatrice well but whose unostentatious physical beauty left no doubt why Mario wanted to marry her?

The production, designed by Buck Ross and staged by Leland Kimball, would only have been possible in our technical age. I didn’t love all of it (a between-scenes computer animation that had millions of letters flying through the air), but it did the job and atmospherically supported the opera at every turn.

A deceptively crucial element in translating a grand opera to a chamber-size operation is the orchestration, a smaller version of which (21 players) was heard here for the first time. It wasn’t a complete success. Catán’s original sonic upholstery was missed — it’s so luminous, how could one not? The smaller forces did exercise the power of suggestion, but reduced the opera’s contours to the point where the audience didn’t always knew when an aria, scene, or act was over. Perhaps the capable conductor (and company general director) Andrew Kurtz was a little too attached to the original tempos: Smaller forces usually need more speed. Also, the players didn’t entirely have it under their fingers. No doubt more will be revealed in subsequent performances.

Additional performances: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Prince Music Theater. Information: 215-238-1555 or www.OperaTheater.org

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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