Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reverend's Reviews: The Fly Buzzes Into LA Opera

Desire, death and Hollywood collided over the weekend during the opening of LA Opera’s 2008-2009 season. In a unique development, the four operas now playing in repertory at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through September 27 are directed by filmmaking heavyweights William Friedkin, Woody Allen and David Cronenberg, with Allen and Cronenberg directing operas for the very first time.

To be sure, the two one-act operas directed by the more experienced Friedkin in Puccini’s Il Trittico are the standout productions, while Allen takes over as director with his comic depiction of the third act. Of special interest to Movie Dearest readers though is the anxiously awaited US premiere of The Fly: The Opera, Cronenberg's operatic debut.

It is adapted by composer Howard Shore and librettist David Henry Hwang (who previously partnered with Cronenberg and Shore on the film based on his play, M. Butterfly) from Cronenberg’s gross-out 1986 horror film,as well as from the original short story and cheesy 1958 moviethat inspired Cronenberg’s version. The opera’s initial performance left the audience divided, but impressed me in several ways.

First, the work is cleverly set in the 1950’s, making the sexual politics and bodily decomposition carried over from the 1986 movie all the more shocking. The time period also provides a ripe setting for satiric jabs at technology and the scientific community, adding some touches of humor to what was cinematically a largely humorless affair.

Mad, doomed scientist Seth Brundle (a vocally and physically bravura performance by Daniel Okulitch) still has his genes mixed up accidentally with those of a housefly while testing his telepods. Expanding on the film versions, Brundle’s ultimate goal isn’t just to move people from one place to the next instantaneously. Rather, he hopes to separate mind and spirit from their fleshly “prisons,” and his telepods are only the first step in that evolution.

In an inspired touch, the opera’s chorus sings the role of the telepods, or rather the computer that operates them. The telepods, designed along with the rest of the set by Dante Ferretti, dominate the stage throughout. While they are impressively used, one does long at times for more of a human element. Cronenberg made a mistake, in my opinion, hiding the chorus in the wings. Having the singers onstage could have been visually interesting and help fill in some obvious transitional gaps.

The role of Veronica, the reporter who becomes Brundle’s muse and lover (well sung by Ruxandra Donose despite some volume issues), is definitely an improvement over previous incarnations; she’s a fully-realized character in the opera and not just someone to react in horror as Brundle deteriorates. In fact, Veronica never screams, as might be expected.

I appreciated the libretti, with Brundle, the telepods/chorus and Veronica pining for “the New Flesh to come” and an affecting incorporation of the films’ “Help me!” and “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Shore is a minimalist composer, so the music leans more toward Glass or Adams than Puccini or Mozart. Some attendees were bemoaning the absence of melody as a result.

Finally, the make-up, puppet work (I loved the baboon) and special aerial effects (yes, Brundle-Fly still crawls on the rafters) are excellent. I was dubious when I saw a publicity shot of Okulitch in full-body fly attire, wondering how he could sing, let alone move, in it. It turns out he does so very well, and his metamorphosis evokes the ravages of AIDS (as it did in Cronenberg’s movie) despite the opera’s being set three decades earlier.

Is The Fly: the Opera one for the ages? Initial critical and audience reaction indicate not, but many an opera in the past has met with disdain upon opening only to be regarded a classic generations later. The singing Brundle-Fly’s time may yet come.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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