Il postino by Daniel Catan at Theatre du Chatelet, Paris



This gloss on the charming 1994 film by Michael Radford about an imagined friendship between Chilean poet Pablo Neruda exiled in Italy and the young postman who delivers his mail fit perfectly into the Châtelet's current trend toward lighter lyric programming, straddling as it does the bounderies between opera and musical theater. The third incarnation of the Los Angeles/Vienna/Châtelet production was a perfect summer interlude, chiefly as a chance to hear Placido Domingo in good voice (June 27).


Like so many contemporary operas, this is based on a story that doesn't scale well for the stage. Opera is about large passions and grand gestures; this is a sequence of small, intimate scenes, with little in the way of conflict and resolution–perfect for camera close-ups but less effective from the second balcony. The only large action, Mario's death, takes place between acts and is told in retrospect — this is a short story comprising a series of vignettes, not a grand drama. But as directed by Ron Daniels the spare, attractive settings by Ricardo Hernandez, nicely lit by Jennifer Tipton and enhanced by Philip Bussmann's projections, moved as smoothly between the brief scenes as a camera fade-out, making for uninterrupted narrative flow. No 10-minute scene changes here!


Catan's music is largely tonal, Verismo Lite as film score (I've always considered verismo the precursor to movie music). Intimations of Mascagni and whiffs of Ravel support vocal lines that are more sing-song than melodic, generally outlining the interval of a third, with occasional wider leaps to convey stronger emotion. The structure, curiously, reminded me of the earliest Italian operas, with their predominantly arioso vocal lines and main action (here, the death of the title character) taking place offstage. The orchestra was huge but carefully scored so that the voices were never covered. The most memorable arias (using the term loosely) were Neruda's love song to Matilde at the very beginning, and Beatrice's account of Mario's death.


Most of the principals had performed in the work's 2010 premiere run in Los Angeles, so the show ran without a hitch. Placido Domingo as Neruda was generous as well as vocally masterful, showing his younger colleague how to deliver ringing high notes, just as the older poet helped the ardent but inarticulate young man find his inner poet and win his lady. Current San Francisco Adler Fellow Daniel Montenegro, reprising the role of Mario Ruoppolo (in alternance with Charles Castronovo) was an appealing young postman. Despite an alarming wobble Cristina Gallardo-Domas brought warmth and comeliness to the part of Matilde, Neruda's wife, which she created in Los Angeles. Amanda Squitieri, another original cast member, sang and acted prettily as Beatrice though straining at her high notes. Secondary characters and the ensemble contributed to a good performance.


Overall it was a decent but unexciting evening. The show flowed nicely, the music was pleasant but without much interest. The cast was talented and effective but this wasn't an ideal showcase for any of them, other than the astonishing Placido Domingo. While it was a bit shocking to see him play an old man (though during the time frame of Neruda's exile the poet would have been in his 50s), his charisma remains undimmed, and his voice was strong, clear, and ardent. I suspect Il postino will see few, if any, revivals. But there are certainly worse ways to spend a sultry summer evening–especially when the theater is air conditioned.