The night after I saw Il Postino, Pablo Neruda, was back in the news: While barricaded in his hospital room during a coup attempt mounted by rightwing policemen, Ecuador’s embattled left-leaning President Rafael Correa quoted the people’s poet: “You can cut the flowers, But you can’t stop the Spring.”
In the opera Il Postino Mexico-born composer/librettist Daniel Catan adapts Antonio Skarmeta’s 1985 novel Burning Patience about the Chilean genius and Communist’s exile as a poet outcast at an Italian isle, where Neruda (tenor Placido Domingo) becomes friends with a simple son of the working class, Mario Ruoppolo (tenor Charles Castronovo). He is the titular postman who delivers letters from afar to the exiled South American leftist. Neruda influences the mailman, transforming him from a passive observer into a protagonist, sparking Mario’s creativity and self assurance, enabling him to find true love and to fight for social justice. The key to both is Neruda’s transmission to his apt pupil and postman the ability to write poetry. (As Marx wrote: “From each according to his ability…”)
This is luminously, imaginatively brought to life onstage by a creative collective of talents worthy of Neruda’s poetry. L.A. Opera’s gleam team renders this literary creative process visually, as well as aurally, with stunning sets that capture the azure beauty of the Mediterranean and pictorialize how poems are written. The collaboration of scenery designer Riccardo Hernandez, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, projection designer Philip Bussman and director Ron Daniels raise the powers of stagecraft to new levels and dimensions of 21st century caliber expressiveness.
Cars, bicycles, boats and even waterworks vividly appear on the stage. The graphically rich sets enhance a sonorous score conducted by Grant Gershon and words delivered with gusto by Domingo, widely regarded as the world’s greatest living acting tenor and by Castronovo – who holds his own. As does an able company that includes Mario’s love interest, soprano Amanda Squitieri (who bears the Dante-esque name Beatrice Russo) and as Neruda’s wife Matilde, soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who, appropriately, was born in Chile.
She has quite an erotic scene towards the beginning with Neruda removing his wife’s upper garments. If romantic love is a theme of the opera, this sexy scene follows the production’s opening sequence, which truly sets the scene and mood for the story: A political demonstration. It’s by the conservative Christian-Democrats; the Communists’ demonstration, with red flags and workers surrounded by trigger happy policemen who go postal, is towards the end of the transcendent tale, as Mario prepares to read a poem celebrating his friend Pablo, who has returned to Chile after the ban on him is lifted. Like Ecuador’s Correa, Mario is besieged by reactionary police.
What’s especially unusual is that, as in the 1994 film Il Postino, members of the Communist Party are very favorably depicted in this opera that had its world premiere here at L.A. Opera. Neruda is portrayed as a compassionate intellectual who is on the side of the common people, using his talent to combat oppression and fight for liberation. Aside from possibly being an unfaithful husband, his worst sin is being a lousy pen pal. Mario, who develops into a lover, poet and labor militant, is also shown in a rosy light. No Redbaiting here – except perhaps by the sleazy Christian-Democrat Di Cosimo (Jose Adan Perez) and his goon squad.
This is a first class production about the working class, a rapturous political work combining revolution and romance, a daring rarity that will travel to Vienna and then Paris after its brief run here. Il Postino was very well received by the Angelino audience, with “bravo” after “bravo” and a standing ovation during the curtain call. In terms of story, conviction, music, dance, costumes, sets and other visuals, Il Postino is a 21st century opera for 21st century socialism, a genuinely poetic experience. I left the Dorothy Chandler whistling that old favorite, The Internationale: “Arise you poets of starvation! Arise ye writers of the Earth!”
Il Postino is being performed at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., on Saturdays Oct. 2, Oct. 9 and Oct. 16 at 2:00 p.m. and Tuesday Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”