I first heard the music of Mexican-born composer Daniel Catán when I saw his opera Florencia en el Amazonas performed by the Seattle Opera in March 1998. It was a memorable production that stuck with me, and somewhere along the line I acquired a recording of the opera, which quickly became a favorite piece of music. Eventually I found the recording of Catán’s earlier opera, Rappaccini’s Daughter (La hija de Rappaccini), and the Naxos CD that includes excerpts from Rappaccini’s Daughter (a different recording entirely) along with a piece for soprano, chorus, and orchestra called Obsidian Butterfly (Mariposa del Obsidiana). All of this music I found rapturously beautiful, and I have eagerly searched for more recordings. Via the internet I was aware that a third opera, Salsipuedes, was produced in 2004, but no recordings have been forthcoming. In 2010 a fourth opera, Il Postino, was premiered by the LA Opera, and it was only when I discovered that a DVD of one of the performances was released in October 2012 that I also learned of Catán’s untimely death in April 2011. He was only 62 years old.
I’m no music critic, so I can’t analyze his musical style very well. It has a shimmering, upwelling, restless quality that reminds me of Debussy. Other influences and comparisons regularly cited are Puccini, Ravel, movie music (Catán himself mentions Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who also composed operas), Stravinsky, and Villa-Lobos. His music is frequently described as neo-Romantic, lush, and lyrical. The British critic David Patrick Stearns has written, ‘Though his style was often compared to that of Puccini and Debussy, it changed with every work, from the lush nature painting of Florencia en El Amazonas (1996) to the Cuban ethnic influences of Salsipuedes (2004), and the more integrated sonorities that portrayed the inner emotions of Il Postino (2010).’ Lindsey M. Heller writes, ‘Sung in an elegant Spanish, his operas are rich with long-spun, mellifluous melodies supported by delicately luscious harmonies and dramatic orchestration. Catán is a master storyteller, capturing the poetic ideas of the text in the music. His works embody a kind of traditional originality, one that embraces all operatic traditions from Monteverdi to Alban Berg but at the same time refreshingly contemporary and highly individual.’
Il Postino is interesting amongst other things as an adaptation. It’s based on the 1994 Italian film, which was in turn an adaptation of the 1985 novel Ardiente Paciencia by the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta, thus making the opera an adaptation of an adaptation. (Rappaccini’s Daughter is also an adaptation of an adaptation, based on Octavio Paz’s Spanish-language stage adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story.) The story is about a village postman who befriends the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who has been exiled to a remote Italian island in the 1950s. The original novel was set in the years 1969-1973 on the Chilean island where Neruda had his home, and I’m not sure why the Italian movie changed the setting and time, although Neruda did stay at a villa on Capri in 1952 during a period of exile. Catán maintains this change, while returning to the spirit of the original source for a somewhat earthier sexuality and more in-depth look at Neruda’s communist politics than the Italian movie provides, not to mention returning to the original Spanish language. But in narrative structure the opera follows the Italian movie very closely. What is lost from the original story is the political connection to events in Chile during the time of Salvador Allende’s ascension and downfall.
Catán was seeking to popularize opera — to create a kind of populist opera — and the attempt to connect with the mass audience for popular cinema makes sense from that point of view. (When he died he was working on an opera adaptation of Frank Capra’s film, Meet John Doe.) Il Postino is an unabashedly sentimental and romantic work, and perhaps that is one of the ways in which he is channeling the Puccini of La Boheme. At the same time, Catán was intent on creating a Spanish-language opera based on the works of the greatest literary figures of the language in the modern area — Octavio Paz in Rappaccini’s Daughter, Gabriel Garcia Márquez in Florencia, and Neruda in Il Postino. Il Postino is very much about poetry, which is analyzed in the form of discussion (in song) in which Neruda explains the concept of metaphors to Mario. There’s no doubt that one of the attractions of adapting the film for Catán would have been the chance to use several of Neruda’s poems for lyrics in the opera.
Poetry is depicted in Il Postino as both the language of love and of politics, although the opera is far less successful at embodying the poetry of politics, because there is no political equivalent in the story to the marriage of Mario and his beloved Beatriz. This is where the decision to abandon the background story of Allende and Pinochet hurts the opera, I think, and prevents it from becoming populist on the political as well as the romantic front. At the same time, Catán does create a musical theme of sorts to try to tie politics into the personal story about the relationship between Mario and Neruda, which is actually more central to the story than the relationship between Mario and Beatrice. Neruda first voices this mournful theme in a song (based on one of his poems) about the oppressed people of Chile. Later Mario picks up the same plaintive refrain in his second-act lament that Neruda has abandoned him because Mario is not a true poet. This moment is to me the weakest in the opera, because Mario’s self-pity seems to come out of nowhere and to be excessively maudlin. Lastly the lament is picked up again when Beatrice tells Neruda and his wife Matilde the story of Mario’s bloody fate at a communist political rally that was attacked by the police. While this music works well to create a sobering tragic strain beneath the ebullient lyricism, the fact that no political goal is announced — not even something as simple as liberty — undercuts the attempted integration of politics and poetry. It’s implied that Neruda’s politics were as inspirational to Mario as his poetics, but it’s all very vague. (In the novel, Neruda leaves the island to serve as the Allende government’s ambassador to France. Here he leaves only in order to return home at the end of his exile.)
Plácido Domingo, who sings the Neruda role and for whom Catán wrote the part, says that Catán wanted to revise the opera in light of the premiere performances, which is something he did with Rappaccini’s Daughter as well. He died before he could do so, but while it would be interesting to know what he intended to revise, I still think the opera is over all a great success in its current form. While it has the structural flaw described above, as a story of love and poetry it seems entirely successful to me. Neruda gets several powerful arias, and he and Mario (both tenor roles) get a couple of blockbuster duets as well, communicating not only the love of poetry but the mentoring relationship of an older man-of-the-world and his naive young apprentice. The role of Beatrice is somewhat more restricted to that of a a love object, but the flights of love-fancy between her and Mario are soaringly beautiful. The shifting scenes that keep the story always in motion, like a movie, also connect to the oceanic imagery and rhythms that Catán fits to the island scene. In one part of the discussion of metaphors, Neruda recites a poem about the ocean that takes on the rushing, receding rhythms of waves. One of the great moments that melds the poetic and political/populist concerns comes after Neruda has told Mario that he has to find his own voice to express his love for Beatrice, just as his fisherman father did, and Mario sits pondering what to say while a chorus of village fisherman sing of their love for their wives in the background. The music at times also has hesitant, halting rhythms that underline Mario’s tentative shyness (a far cry from the ballsy character of Skarmeta’s novel). The orchestration of the music seems much more reserved at first than that of the earlier operas, so when it finally unfurls ecstatically at the climax, as Mario realizes and tries to record the beauty of the life around him, it’s like a revelation.
I’m a relative neophyte when it comes to opera, and to the extent that I’ve been trying to learn more in the past decade, it has been mostly through listening to CDs. Thus it’s something of another revelation (if an obvious one) to watch an opera on DVD. This film version from the LA Opera is extraordinarily well done. The camerawork has an appropriately cinematic feel, giving us an eloquent mixture of long shots, medium shots, and closeups and creating a split-screen effect that brings Mario and Beatriz together onscreen while they sing of their attraction for each other from opposite ends of the stage. The acting is also excellent, with many subtle gestures and facial expressions that would be hard to see watching this from the balcony at the opera house. The set designs are spare and elegant, constantly in motion as the scenes shift. PBS is streaming what appears to be the same performance used for the DVD, but it’s a simpler edit of all the fancy camera work. Still, you can get a taste of the performance there if you want to check it out before you decide whether to look up the DVD. It certainly helps to watch the performance to understand the story, and I dearly wish Catán’s other operas were available in this form as well. As Heller says above, he is a master of dramatic, as well as musical, expression.
This production of Il Postino, with Plácido Domingo in the role of Neruda, Charles Castronovo as Mario, and Amanda Squitieri as Beatrice, has continued to tour around the world since Catán’s death, playing for example in Vienna, Paris, and Santiago. It has been knocking them dead everywhere it plays, while still being treated with skepticism by critics who find the story and the music thin compared to classics of the past. I’m a neophyte when it comes to opera, as I said, so I can’t judge it in the context of the classics. I did struggle with the sentimentality of the story at first, and felt that musically it wasn’t quite as lush or rapturous as Rappaccini’s Daughter or Florencia en el Amazonas, but it has won me over as I’ve both listened to it and watched it further and have learned better what it is trying to express and how it works dramatically. I urgently recommend this DVD to lovers of the film, of Skármeta’s novel, of contemporary opera, of Neruda, of poetry and romance. Daniel Catán is a name that deserves to be better known, and this is as good a place as anywhere to start.