Making <i>Il Postino</i> Puccinier

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Is he Catán, or Puccini?

Most reviews comment on or elaborate on the Pucciniesqueness of Daniel Catán’s new opera, based on the film about the friendship of the poet Pablo Neruda with his postman while exiled on an Italian island. Writers have been comparing it to Tosca and La Boheme. Puccini is given too much credit more deserved by Catán himself, and others. Why? Who?
 
Reviewers may confuse a thematic similarity too much with a musical one. Catán’s opera, rapturously received by the audience in the 9/5/10 performance I attended, is most like Puccini in its unencumbered celebration of thunderstriking heterosexual love—an old-fashioned topic foreign to most recent operas. This is an emotional thematic similarity to Puccini's specialty, but not necessarily a musical one. Catán’s musical means are less Puccini’s own than that of the lush Debussy/Ravel French school that influenced the Tuscan master’s La Rondine, a far better model for comparison than any cited by critics. A particular French influence I noticed is Catán’s (over)use of the harp.
 
There are decided differences between Catán’s style and Puccini’s:
  1. Catán writes no full-blown aria in the Puccini manner. Catán does quasi-arias at best, with the exception of the ensemble scene that ends Act II (just like the “Rondine” Act II). Anyone trying to convince me Catán’s are real has to explain why, when the conductor—all too often—stopped the orchestra for applause after these "quasies," only a few trickles of claps followed. Little happened because these quasies were not complete: few audiences members were prepared to feel that an aria had been consumated.
  2. Catán’s harmonies are far more static than Puccini’s. Catán relies on pedal points to contraindicate harmonic change. Dominant-tonic relationships are greatly avoided. Puccini sounds much more all over the harmonic map than his so-called imitator, and he far more frequently relishes dominant to tonic chordal progressions, or the appearance of same.
  3. Catán has a distinctive, soaring melodic style that in my view is completely his own, and gorgeously creditworthy. What makes some think his melodies are like Puccini’s is caused by one of the few harmonic similarities between the composers: a tendency to resolve chords from the interval of the 9th back to the tonic (or "key" note) of the scale. But the composers' melodic contours are quite different.
 
Finally, a major musical (as opposed to emotional) influence I hear in Catán is John Adams, not Puccini. This is most evident in the first act, which has some of the weakest passages. There, Catán, sounds like he’s filling time by repeating, postminimalistically, melodic cells in the Adams manner.
 
The strengths of the L.A production are many besides the music alone. Catán’s libretto, which of course is very much Neruda’s, is luscious, sensuous, and a joy to hear, wordsoundwise. The lexicological wall projections nicely helped focus attention on the subject. I have to go back to Adams’ Nixon in China to find a libretto of equal quality. The sets are simple, yet effective. (A nonsensical strip of fluorescent light like the one in the recent San Francisco production of Massenet's Werther, however, hit a hot button for me.) Placido Domingo fits his Neruda part like a letter in the postino’s envelope: the respect for the man as consummate artist overflows into the same respect we are supposed to feel for the great poet, communist though he may be in some eyes. Charles Castronovo is perfect as the postman, and his sexy girlfriend Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri) is an excellent singer and an eye magnet when playing fooseball in the bar scene.
 
Among the operas since Nixon in China, Il Postino, along with Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, has the best chance so far to enjoy numerous performances into our current century. An improvement to subsequent productions would be the rewriting of some of Adams-like tropes, the extension of one or two of the quasi-arias into something more fulsome, and the inclusion of a short orchestral introduction to mellow out a rather abrupt beginning.