Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Fly: more Dreck than Shrek

What an inglorious start of the 2008-09 LA Opera season! As a subscriber this year, I was eager to sink my teeth into a worthy sequel of the exciting original atomic-era 1957 film and the later 1986 remake. Remaking this as an opera is a worthy goal. Opera is essentially a collection of stirring arias stitched together with plot-advancing recitative and some elaborate stagecraft.

With the The Fly, the aimless chanted dialog was unbroken by even a single aria, instead droning on like a Gregorian chant, in weak voices unable to make themselves heard over the robust orchestra (luckily, I could lighthouse from stage up to the supertitles and back every half second to assist my underdeveloped lipreading skills). The only clear voice was from a high tenor leather daddy in the bar scene.

The set dressing was elaborate but steel-gray and static, without a single set change. The funds provided by the NEA and the James Irvine Foundation having been no doubt exhausted on an admittedly good-looking pair of ominous telepods, the other scenes were simple props (desk, folding chairs, fake pool table) placed stage front, without even the benefit of decent lighting design to hide the lab equipment behind. In fact, in one memorable lighting mishap, the lone spotlight fails to illuminate the armwrestling match (don't ask!), instead brightly lighting a patch of empty stage several feet in front. I can only assume the folding table did not hit its mark. Later, a massive rack of back lights shone in our eyes — and on each other — blinding the audience to all but the cables and scaffolding.

The libretto was mere plot without drama, jarringly punctuated with mixed tone ("Swear that you love me. Do you swear? Pinky swear?", as the two principals interlock little fingers in an oath of fidelity). Contrast this with the passion of Donn'Anna crying out for revenge in Mozart's Don Giovanni: "Fuggi crudele...vendetta!" Such was the wrath and passion of this that years later, I can still sing the aria aloud. Even the brief nudity and muscled bare chest of the would-become Fly Seth Brendle (played by scrumptious Daniel Okulitch) could not elicit passion from his romantic interest. Political correctness having now placed off limits the inherited power of traditional stereotypical for "leading ladies" such as wife, mistress, coworker, or even infatuated student, the vapid libretto of David Henry Hwang (of M. Butterfly fame) settles for a skeptical female science reporter (a non-sexy job in the best of times), who after a one-night-stand turns into a spy for her ex-lover and boss.

The transformation from human to Brendlefly (which we learn is the scientific term for the fusion of Seth Brendle and musca domestica), far from the grand Kafkaesque (or even Teen Wolf) metamorphosis that I had expected, was tackily accomplished with a Creature from the Black Lagoon outfit and a computer monitor (sung aloud by monotonous chorus offstage), describing in bizarrely graphic detail the physiological changes underway: "First, he bit his fingernail off, then his teeth fell out, followed by his gums, then he learned to vomit his stomach acid, then suck them back up." I had had my fill of this stuff back in Junior High. Indeed, the fact that white liquid was ostensibly oozing out of cracks in his skin (we take the computer monitor's word for this, as nothing is shown on stage) was apparently thought so tittilating and witty that the identical line was used a minute later to describe what oozed out of his fingers and toes when they fell off. In short, ten minutes listening to a human autopsy report. The final scene has the leading lady end with a Palinesque announcement that she is pregnant with a flybaby and will not abort her larva in utero but rather give birth to this fruitful ménage-à-quatre fusion of man, woman, fly, and telepod (assuming it does not kill and eat her in childbirth like an Alian). Given religious conservatives' opposition to both abortion, bestiality, wireless internet, and group marriage, I wouldn't even hazard a guess whether they approve of her intention to raise the fly offspring on her own outside the bounds of a traditional family structure. (Sounds like we need another California Proposition to stave this one off...)

Truly, the only character that engendered my honest affection was the baboon puppet, expertly animated to give a charm exceeding that of the Winged Monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. The insufficiently shocking grotesque moments where baboon and later Brendlefly were turned inside out were not signalled for the proximity-challenged with a helpful stage scream, faint, shout, or gesticulation, giving me plenty of time to analyze the red paint on the mannequin and mourn the missed climax.

It is probably unfair to expect the cast to have done more with such a simple libretto, lacking dramatic irony, false or real climax, or surprise. Indeed, the first Act ended so abruptly that the audience did not think to clap. Again, at the curtain call, the applause was hanging on out of sheer politeness while the cast stole a second bow.

Still, all of the above challenges paled in comparison to the true stinker of the night. The music, written by moving picture soundtrack writer Howard Shore, had the feel of a soundtrack. Arias are no doubt very difficult to write to be memorable, lyrical, without ripping off the great operas of yore. Still, this audience member would have appreciated the attempt. I can only contrast this with operatic musicals like West Side Story or especially Rent, which successfully stood up to Shakespeare and Puccini, respectively, with both courage and originality. I would say more about the amorphous mass of notes, except that even two hours later I cannot remember a single motif or chorus. Apparently, the music of the second Act was so poorly received in Paris that it was rewritten for LA, and indeed the first several bars where qualitatively different (as though written by another?) but soon gave way to the same basso continuo paralleling the enless recitative.

The tragicomedy of the The Fly is that it fails utterly to excite even with the benefit of nudity, a rather humorous sex/rape scene, backstory of compelling Promethean hubris, onstage acrobatics, and geek humor. This takes some doing, since the jokes actually made me laugh out loud, so I will repeat some here. You will either scream with the smug laughter of an insider, or be left bemused and bored.

Why did the chickin cross the Möbius Strip?

— To get to the same side.

Who was Heisenberg?

— I'm not certain...

Why do scientists have such trouble picking up women at parties?

— Because they are so rarely invited to them.

Ah, French champagne. Although I think it's from California.

So I guess it can't be champagne. So why does it have bubbles?

Reacting negatively to criticism of the score, a professional musician friend of mine (who often works orchestrating and performing film scores) suggested I take some blank note paper and a pencil and try my own hand. I certainly am no musician, but think I might just have a go at a better libretto. Good drama is disguising human tribulations in animal clothing, not dressing up soap opera with fancy lab equipment.

In all fairness, the LA Opera has taken on a bold and ambitious season repertoire year, with two Wagner Ring operas, as as season ticket holders we are proud sponsors. It is completely understandable that they need to bookend the season with modern works (The Fly, The Birds), both to cater to younger tastes of the new subscribers of a younger generation, as well as to fill out the schedule with less-costly ventures. Let us hope that The Birds (unlike The Fly) will take flight.

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