Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

September 08, 2008

 
David Okulitch as Seth Brundle (before) Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Or at least that’s the advice of the mutant-fly-impregnated Veronica Quaife in Howard Shore’s The Fly, an operatic adaptation of the famous David Cronenberg film from 1986 now receiving its U.S. premiere at Los Angeles Opera. The show opened on Sunday as the second production of the new season after a startlingly good Il Trittico the night before. (Which you should go see.) And while The Fly is not a total disaster, it’s about as close to one as you can get without actually arriving there.

Not that the subject matter is completely inappropriate for an opera. There’s plenty here thematically from humanity’s relationship to technology to the fatal flaw of emotional insecurity. Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist, creates a teleportation device he shares with a newfound love, science reporter Veronica Quaife. When he begins to doubt her affection, he rashly tests the yet to be perfected machine on himself inadvertently fusing his DNA with that of a fly which, unbeknownst to him, gets into the device with him. Soon Brundle becomes more fly and less man and it all ends in grotesque tears. But while this might be a reasonable opera idea, I’m not sure who the target audience for this new opera is supposed to be. While I’m sure there are some hardcore Fangoria subscribers who’ve been waiting for the classical music version of this 80s classic, it doesn't seem that a staging of a cult-classic creepy horror film would have a broad appeal. But, hey, this is art, right?

The Fly does have big names behind it, with director David Cronenberg, conductor Placido Domingo, librettist David Henry Hwang, and Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore. But little here works the way it should. The music is predictable, dull, and virtually devoid of any dynamics. Shore’s vocal lines are rarely interesting and they are weighed down by the wordy and repetitive libretto. There are several scenes that run far too long and others that simply serve no purpose other than to replicate some version of the movie. In fact at just under three hours, it’s about twice the length of Cronenberg’s film.

(after) Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

The cast does an admirable job with what little they have to work with. Ruxandra Donose plays Quaife with commitment and passion against Daniel Okulitch’s Seth Brundle. Okulitch, who gamely appears in various states of undress including the all-together at the end of Act II, is a talented vocalist and sounds very good in less than optimal circumstances. It's worth noting that heis also both hotter and a better vocalist than Jeff Goldblum ever was or will be. Gary Lehman, of this year’s Metropolitan Opera Tristan und Isolde disaster fame, was Stathis Borans, Quaife’s boss and ex. He–like everyone–seemed to be crying out for bigger and better things than this muck.

Most worrisome were the increasing number of unintentionally funny moments that seemed to increase as the show went on. The animal and Brundle monster puppets produced more than a few chuckles. A stand-in gymnast who did multiple back flips to represent Brundle’s increased mutant strength at the start of Act II received a big round of applause as well. And in perhaps the biggest irony, Quaife’s frequent repetition of the catch phrase “Be afraid. Be very afraid” seemed to produce more and more tittering over the course of Act II. Given that Cronenberg’s film is the original source of this now overused cliché, it may have been appropriately used here, but this has been lost on the audience who seemed to mostly see it as a puzzling weakness in the libretto.

I guess L.A. Opera does deserve credit for trying something new. And, although they have not typically had great or even consistent success in this area, that's no reason to give up trying. And, considering all this occurred in a season with so much else at stake what with the new Ring cycle and all, it could seem rather bold. So give them an "A" for effort and go see Il Trittico instead.

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I guess L.A. Opera does deserve credit for trying something new. And, although they have not typically had great or even consistent success in this area, that's no reason to give up trying

That's true, but that's 3 consecutive bombs: Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra, the expensive Goldenthal Grendel and now this schlock. So, they give two film composers commissions and *shock* every review of both the Goldenthal and Shore operas remarked how poor the music is.

It's hard to believe they've actually done terrific new operas like Catan's lovely Florencia en al Amazonas and the very powerful Kullervo by an opera composer with a proven track record, Aulis Sallinen. There's at least a dozen geniune opera composers that I can think of that would love a high-profile commission, but how much you wanna bet the next one goes to a film composer who will write something based on a popular recent movie or book?

I think it's really sad how the opera and the Philharmonic have tried for as long as I can remember to get Hollywood in to their folds (i.e. get the Hollywood $$$) and just because they've had some directors do productions that weren't horrible, doesn't mean they're any closer to that goal than they were 20 years ago.
FYI -

The "next" one is by Catan - Il Postino opens nexts season, starring Domingo and Villazon.
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