November 11, 2019

Il Postino: a tale of two tenors

One of the most familiar tropes in operatic libretti is an early scene in which the tenor sings ardently of the soprano he loves. The first and last operas of Virginia Opera’s current season employ this device with Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” in Tosca and the famous solo “Celeste Aida” in our closing production. Off the top of my head I can list others: The Barber of Seville; Un Ballo in Maschera; Manon Lescaut; and many others. It’s a “thing” in opera.
"Desnuda" (photo courtesy of Virginia Opera)

Does Il Postino follow suit? Yes, but with one big – and significant – difference. The first aria is given to Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. As one might expect, most of Neruda’s solos are settings of selections from his poems; the first one is “Desnuda” (Naked), in which the character praises the beauty of his wife Matilde:
Naked, you are as simple as your hand,
Smooth, earthy, minimal, round, transparent,
You have lines of moonlight, paths of apple,
Naked you are like slender naked wheat.
Naked, you are blue, like a night in Cuba,
Vines and stars decorate your hair.
Naked you are tiny,
Naked you are rotund and golden, grandiose
Like summer in a golden temple.

Daniel Catán’s musical setting is ardent, tender and a touch exotic. But for all its attractiveness, the aria is also a definite break with tradition.  In the other operas listed above, the soprano character who is the object of the tenor’s affection is the female lead; the prima donna. However, the leading female role in Il Postino is Beatrice, not Matilde. Matilde proves to be a minor character. Veteran operagoers may thus be confused, expecting Matilde to be the focus of the story arc, when she proves to be a minor figure.

What accounts for this unconventional aspect of a conventional trope? There are a couple of explanations. One is born of practical considerations while the other has to do with the character of Mario Ruoppolo, the postman of the title and the other tenor role.

It’s well-known that the role of Neruda was created for, and with the collaboration of, tenor Placido Domingo, who sang it at the world premiere production in Los Angeles in 2010. Given that a new opera by a composer who was not a household name would not automatically generate box-office success, it seems clear that the chief draw would be Domingo’s superstar status. Logically, his name alone could be counted on to tempt those who are often wary of contemporary works to buy a ticket. 
There are people who would pay good money to hear a superstar singer walk out on a stage and just recite the white pages of the Norfolk phone book. Thus, Pablo Neruda gets the lion’s share of arias in Il Postino with four substantial solos in addition to ensembles. The L.A. audience came to see Domingo, thus: give the people what they want.

But why could Catán not have begun the show with an aria for Mario rhapsodizing about Beatrice? Neruda could still have sung all of his solos, after all. The reason is simple:

Mario wasn’t ready.

The opera is Mario’s coming-of-age journey. He begins as a shy, inarticulate, unemployed, uneducated young man drifting and dreaming through life. He lacks self-confidence; he worships women from afar but can’t summon up the gumption to speak to them.

He is not given an opening aria because, at this point, he has nothing to say. As noted in my previous post, his initial courtship of Beatrice is by proxy, relying exclusively on lines of Neruda's love poems. Once Neruda's influence on Mario begins to fade, his vocal writing gains in eloquence until, by the bittersweet finale, we discover (as noted in my previous post) a grown man who has found his path in life -- and has something to say.

Under different circumstances, the expected vocal casting might have suggested a baritone for the role of Pablo Neruda: an older man, scarred by life's adversities and speaking with more maturity and gravitas than the man-child Mario Ruoppolo. Yet the collaborative partnership of composer and celebrity tenor dictated yet another unconventional choice. Neither mild departure from theoretical "norms" have prevented Il Postino from having made its way into the repertoire since its debut in 2010.

Will it still be a repertory item in 20 years? 50? 100? The odds are against any particular opera having long-term success; the percentage of all operas ever written that have enduring popularity is statistically insignificant. But Catán’s wistful romantic comedy has been given every chance.

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