September 12, 2008
Operatic ‘Fly’ Has a Lot of Bugs in It
By Jim Farber
When Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore told Placido Domingo that he wanted to compose an opera based on the 1986 film version of "The Fly," the artistic director of the Los Angeles Opera should have heeded the warning of the movie's heroine, "Be afraid. Be very afraid!"
The disappointing results are now on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where "The Fly" received its American premiere Sunday with Domingo conducting. The world premiere took place in July at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.
The opera's pedigree is star-studded with Hollywood talent. In addition to Shore ("The Lord of the Rings"), it is directed by David Cronenberg, who conceived the 1986 remake. The set design is by Dante Ferretti ("Gangs of New York"). The "Fly makeup and creature design" is by Stephan Dupris, who took home an Oscar for his ghoulish work in 1986. The word-heavy libretto (that draws laughs when it isn't supposed to) is by David Henry Hwang ("M Butterfly").
Cronenberg's updated film version is about a reclusive scientist, Seth Brundle, who invents a teleportation device. He falls in love with a reporter, Veronica Quaife, covering the story. But when an experiment goes awry, the scientist is turned into a mutant.
That film, of course, was based on the campy 1958 sci-fi-horror "classic," in which the shrunken head of David Hedison flies around squeaking, "Help me! Help me!" But the original source material is a 1957 short story by George Langelaan.
Many saw Cronenberg's film as a modern parable for the infestation of AIDS. For the remake of his remake, the director has returned "The Fly" to its original 1950s setting, a time when Hollywood was in love with mad science run amok and its disastrous results.
Well, the operatic results of "The Fly" are disastrous, beginning with the doggedly dour score by Shore that projects itself as "serious" music (as opposed to "movie music") by rejecting tonality and melody in favor of relentless minor key sonorities and dank, dreary dissonance.
It's an unrelenting formula that ultimately paints Shore into a corner he does not have the compositional imagination to break out of. By the beginning of Act 2 (in this 21/2-hour opus) he has exhausted his musical palette and the audience along with it.
Cronenberg's concept and Hwang's pretentious "Behold the New Flesh" libretto takes itself far too seriously. It's more Charles Darwin, Franz Kafka and Frederick Nietzsche ("Behold the Superman") than good old American sci-fi. There are also scenes transposed from Cronenberg's film, like the arm-wrestling scene in the bar (now filled with nihilistic leather boys and bobby-soxers) that just doesn't work.
You can't really blame the cast or the off-stage chorus that intones the voice of Brundle's "telepods." They give their all, led by buff (and in-the-buff) Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch (as Brundlefly) and Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as Veronica. Their coming together (literally) in Act 1 is a classic example of Beauty and the Geek that is endearing and dramatically resonant. But by Act 2, as Seth begins his transformation, both the relationship and the production's credibility fall apart as Brundle begins to crave 14-hour sex sessions and starts ranting about "insect politics."
You also have to give credit to Domingo, at least for his ardor and enthusiasm to present new work. And at this point in his career it's amazing that he would want to take on as demanding (and ultimately thankless) a task as conducting this score.
There's a point in the opera when Veronica says there's a part of her life she needs to scrape off the bottom of her shoe. You may feel the same way after you've seen "The Fly."
Jim Farber (310) 540-5511, Ext. 416; [email protected]
THE FLY - One star
>Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
>When: 7:30 tonight, Saturday, Tuesday and Sept. 20; 2 p.m. Sept. 27.
>Cost: $20 to $250.
>Info: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.com.
>In a nutshell: The score by Oscar winner Howard Shore is doggedly dour.
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