By Eric A. Gordon
Back in 1994 the film "Il Postino" appeared, based on Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta's 1985 novel "Ardiente Paciencia," which centered on a fictionalized episode in the life of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet (and lifelong Communist) Pablo Neruda. The poet-diplomat had been forced into exile from his homeland in the early 1950s and took refuge for a time on a tiny island off the Italian coast.
Consumed with other projects for some years, and also because the literary rights were not yet available, Mexican composer Daniel Catán waited until now to complete his opera, also called "Il Postino." It is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Los Angeles Opera, and stars veteran superstar of the operatic world Plácido Domingo as Neruda.
Neruda's political identity as a Communist is established early on in the opera in the form of a radio announcement that the great poet will be coming to live on the southern Italian isle of Cala di Sotto. He soon establishes a mentorship with Mario, the barely literate postman who delivers Neruda's fan mail. Known worldwide as the "poet of the people" as well as the "poet of love," Neruda insists to his wife that no, writing his poems is not sufficient effort on behalf of his beliefs; rather, he feels obligated to continue with his political work. Enjoying his unexpected but refreshing role in educating "il postino" (the postman) in the art of metaphorical thinking, he watches the winsome and class-conscious Mario grow intellectually day by day. (For the serious operaphile, "Il Postino" inevitably recalls another opera featuring a radical poet, Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chenier," which takes place at the time of the French Revolution.)
As composer and librettist, Catán does not back away from the politics of this story in deference to a presumed conservatism among operagoers. The perfidy of self-interested machine politicians runs through the opera both as a reminder of the limits of the familiar capitalist scam, and as a prod to Mario's emerging political understanding. In one of Neruda's recurring poetic refrains, he speaks of a "blue like the Cuban night." What would be the significance of mentioning Cuba in Italy in the early 1950s, except that the listener will automatically bring later, favorable associations to the mention of that land? Once again, Catán subtly but surely reinforces the positive and even the romantic aspects of Communism. Neruda is also portrayed in the news, non-judgmentally, as having gone to "Russia" to present a poetry award, although of course we know that at the time it was the socialist Soviet Union. In the opera Neruda gets news of a brutal massacre in Chile, and again, although the time frame is the early 1950s, most audiences will undoubtedly bring to this reference their memories of Pinochet's coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. (The original novelist, Antonio Skarmeta, was also forced into exile from Chile from 1973-1988.)
Mario is not a mature poet - he has only begun to express himself - by the time he appears at a Communist demonstration to read his latest work dedicated to Neruda, "giving voice to the most unprotected people." The protest against crooked politicians is complete with flowing red banners and Catán's stirring, if somber, chorus singing "The Internationale." When is the last time you heard that on the operatic stage?! The blood of martyrdom ultimately unites the Chileans and the Italians, and one might say all peoples. Little Pablito, Mario and Beatrice's son, makes a touching last-act appearance, as a symbol of hope for the next generation.