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The Fly Stinks Up the Chandler; Woody Allen and William Friedkin's Puccini Fares Better 

David Cronenberg and Howard Shore's insect opera repels

Wednesday, Sep 10 2008
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The bad news from Paris, earlier this year, was fair warning; The Fly, which had first taken flight at the Châtelet Opera, is one big turkey. At the press conference in Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion, a week or so ago, there was Plácido Domingo burbling about operatic masterpiece, composer Howard Shore affecting pride, director David Cronenberg insisting that the opera had no connection with his 1986 film, and the press allowed onstage, a few at a time, to ooh and aah over Dante Ferretti’s giant Laundromats, which were supposed to pass for Doctor Brundle’s Teleporters. All the while, the music from this wretched excuse for an opera played over the speakers: billows of orchestral sound patterns moving up and down with tuneless conversations superimposed.

Why do such things happen? I suppose it goes something like this: Howard Shore writes these splendid movie scores. The Lord of the Rings gets turned into a symphony — a huge, pompous-ass symphony that doesn’t for a minute shed its movie-biz identity, but a symphony nevertheless. Shouldn’t an opera be the next career move? Does it matter that he has no sense at all for a vocal line? How to differentiate between a love theme and an anger theme? Apparently nobody thought to ask. Maestro Domingo, whose last foray into contemporary opera was Nicolas and Alexandra, is again seduced by mediocrity.

For the two and a half hours of The Fly at the Chandler Pavilion, the ear is insulted with words set to music that almost never allows them to take shape. David Henry Hwang (of M. Butterfly) provided the text, which includes a steamy love duet about flesh, flesh and more of same. Sure, the opera has no connection with Cronenberg’s film. How could it? The basic premise, the bodily disintegration the makeup guys worked so brilliantly upon Jeff Goldblum in the film, is only hinted at in an embarrassing moment, when the opera onstage simply stops, and the supertitles, alone, are left to tell the story. When action returns, there is Doctor Brundle again, bent over and with a cane but still full size. Call this illusion? I call it cop-out.

click to enlarge MARIE-NOELLE ROBERT - There was a bass-baritone who swallowed The Fly: Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle.
  • Marie-Noelle Robert
  • There was a bass-baritone who swallowed The Fly: Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle.

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Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch does a reasonable job as Doctor Brundle, including a few seconds of creditable Full Monty. He also does a couple of backflips to demonstrate the agilities of the New Flesh (although a double comes on for the sterner stuff). Romanian soprano Ruxandra Donose is the put-upon Veronica, and a couple of minor roles are handled, as well as need be, by Gary Lehman and Beth Clayton. Oh yes, I almost forgot: The opera ends with the message that brave Veronica is pregnant with Brundle’s child and has refused an abortion despite the possibility of giving birth to a you-know-what. Sequel, anyone? Now that’s what I’d call a horror story.

Before any of this, and by far the weekend’s better-spent time, was the opera’s excursion onto the triple bill of Puccini one-acters that some put forward as the best of all his music, beautifully planned and led by James Conlon. I cannot argue; Il Tabarro, the first of the set, does indeed have some of his most adventurous music; Gianni Schicchi, the last, is the music I turn to when the old hate-Puccini impulses start to churn. Unfortunately, Suor Angelica, the middle and sad sister of the three, is one of the works that does, indeed, start those impulses. William Friedkin staged the first two in the series; he had also staged Gianni Schicchi in 2002; now it was someone else’s turn.

All three short works, so different in narrative and tone, have in common the plan of a slow, leisurely start through an extended musical landscape; we know these people before their actions coalesce. Il Tabarro offers a remarkable portrait of a Parisian dockside: the barge of Michele and the gathering onshore. The orchestra projects a broad panorama; wonderful little dabs of color evoke the schemes of Monet and Debussy and remind us of the range of sympathy in Puccini’s late years, when works like Pierrot Lunaire seized his awareness. Lovely moments occur; an organ grinder’s instrument honks out a souvenir of La Bohème. As sunset turns to dusk, Puccini’s orchestra makes this tangible; it’s one of opera’s great moments, and our company does it well.

Mark Delevan is the murderous Michele; Anja Kampe is the wavering wife: a superb and superbly matched couple. Salvatore Licitra is the fly in their ointment, and he gets swatted. He was the tenor who stood in for Pavarotti on the night of the Great Cancellation: an okay tenor with a bit of howl.

Suor Angelica is all sweet atmosphere, and it takes patience, as the young nuns and novices bustle over their cabbages and their chores. Sandra Radvanovsky is Angelica, and she is all drama up to that high D (I think it is) at the end of her big death aria. But Conlon has had to dig up a second aria, meant by Puccini to follow the big “Senza mamma,” inferior music and, in this context, anticlimactic. It is usually cut, and should be; it prolongs a scene which, considering the brevity of the entire work, was the proper length before.

Gianni Schicchi is Woody Allen’s show, but not entirely. The opening bit is Woody-sophomoric: a screen with funny Italian words — e.g., “impetigo” — just to be Woody-cute. But that is soon lifted, and Gianni Schicchi has resisted worse than that. It’s a wonderful, boisterous show, staged on a crowded design by Santo Loquasto — a backyard and tenement of any century, any neighborhood — that is really part of the fun. The opera is a great boondoggle, a Woody Allen specialty if ever there was. Thomas Allen is the seedy, self-important Schicchi; Laura Tatulescu sings the “O mio babbino caro” most seductively; and the show is stolen (literally) by 9-year-old Sage Ryan, who in the brief span of this opera picks every pocket and steals every heart.

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