What is the sound of two hands clapping? Bad news, as Plácido Domingo must have known the moment he finished his first big sing in Il Postino. Adapted from Michael Radford's international hit film of 1994, the late Daniel Catán's fifth and final work for the stage has charms but minimal impact. The musical idiom is second-generation Puccini, seldom memorable. On the PBS broadcast from the premiere run at Los Angeles Opera, filmed in October 2011 and now released on home video, a single magnanimous patron breaks the silence after that aria with tentative applause, but no one follows suit. It's painful.
Written in short, intersecting scenes, Il Postino (The Mailman) seeks to flow but mostly lurches. Nothing fits. Exiled to an Italian rock in the Mediterranean, the cultivated Pablo Neruda — Chilean poet and freedom fighter — sings exclusively in Spanish. So does his unlikely pal Mario Ruoppolo, the unschooled local mailman, and the entire island population. If ever a libretto cried out to be bilingual, it is this one (by the composer himself). Yet only the title is Italian. Box-office insurance? (Who ever heard of El Cartero?)
The multitudes who saw the movie — orders of magnitude more than may ever hear the opera — will recall what happens. The bicycling postino, having noticed that Neruda gets bags of fan mail from the ladies, asks the great man for pointers in seduction. Practicing his budding talent for poetry and metaphor, Mario wins the virginal Beatrice Russo, who waits tables at the bar. Meanwhile, corrupt politicians are campaigning against the decent, hard-working Communists with hollow promises of running water.
Domingo enjoys himself royally as the aging amorist Neruda, luxuriating in the bare skin of his wife, teasing his earnest disciple, brooding on the fate of his homeland. And he weeps buckets at the final curtain, sharing the stage with Mario, who was shot dead at a political rally in a previous scene but returns to voice an unsent letter of heartfelt thanks for Neruda's gift of poetry. It is pleasant to hear the tenorissimo of the age in a bona fide tenor role tailored to his late-stage tessitura, rather than plying the faux-baritone Fach he has favored of late. Charles Castronovo's lively phrasing is more distinctive than his dark, unvarying timbre; but his pointed musicianship, arched eyebrows and winsome, earnest air suit Mario to a T.
Amanda Squitieri's Beatrice makes her entrance with a sultry romance, delivered with an edge of steel. For an encore, she beats the stuffing out of Mario in a game of foosball, to a cacophony of her own whoops and grunts. The sight of Beatrice bumping and grinding around the table — think R. Crumb in full swing — makes a mockery of the maidenly airs she must affect later on, as do Squitieri's sleek tone and take-charge body language. Nancy Fabiola Herrera lends her gusty mezzo to the thankless part of Beatrice's comic watchdog aunt, Donna Rosa, who leads the young couple to the altar at the point of a shotgun. As Matilde Neruda, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs wafts through an interlude of conjugal bliss with Domingo, sounding quite out of sorts.
Vladimir Chernov, once noted for his Verdi and his Barber of Seville, shows up as the postmaster Giorgio, a negligible part. As Mario's father, Gabriel Lautaro Osuna stops the wedding scene briefly with an a cappella blessing as raw as a muezzin's cry from a minaret. As the capo Di Cosimo, accompanied by his own brass band, José Adán Pérez never fails to pop. Like the orchestra in the pit, the onstage instrumentalists give Catán their all. Grant Gershon is the very capable conductor. Ron Daniels is responsible for the fluent stage production, fluently directed for the camera by Brian Large.