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So This Scientist Walks Into a Teleportation Device...


Los Angeles Opera's new season is upon us, starting off with the one-two punch of Puccini's triple-bill of one-acts, Il Trittico -- the third portion of which (Gianni Schicchi) marks Woody Allen's operatic directorial debut -- and the North American premiere of Howard Shore's The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg.

Mark Swed's review of Trittico, which opened on Saturday, ran in this morning's Los Angeles Times: he liked it overall, but falls out of his chair quite completely over Woody Allen's contribution to the proceedings.  The Fly opened on Sunday and will, presumably, receive its Times review tomorrow.  I'll not be seeing Trittico (ack! Puccini!), and I am not scheduled to catch Fly until the penultimate performance on September 20, after which you'll have my report.

This, it must be said, does not bode well.  Beating the Times to print (at least online), the OC Register's Timothy Mangan is capital-B Blunt in his opinion:

Let's not mince words. That's always the best way.  Just rip the bandage off quickly.  Howard Shore's 'The Fly,' which was given its U.S. premiere Sunday afternoon courtesy of Los Angeles Opera, is the worst opera I've ever seen.  Wait, let me mince.  I'll say 'possibly the worst' since my memory's not what it used to be.  Be afraid, be very afraid, if you've already got tickets to 'The Fly.'  It's three hours that you'll never get back, not counting the drive.

'The Fly' isn't even an interesting failure.  It's just amateurish.  It isn't even good enough to be offensive. . . .

And so on.  And on.  And on. 

One of my measuring sticks for the degree of negativity in negative reviews is a Martin Bernheimer piece for the LATimes from the late '70s, in which he dismissed a visiting Viennese ballet company's performance as an evening of "hippity hop, gallumph, gallumph."  Mangan's review of The Fly has plenty of gallumph in it:

In the second act the audience was laughing at 'The Fly,' and there weren't any jokes, just a lot of simulated sex (I guess flies are insatiable) and bad dialogue.  [Protagonist Seth] Brundle has an extended rant about 'insect politics' and you just have to give up.  None other than Plácido Domingo was conducting, we'd like to say 'valiantly,' but we can't be sure.

If this is a sign of reviews to come, The Fly bids fair to supplant 2003's much disdained Nicholas and Alexandra in the annals of Unfortunate Los Angeles Opera Commissions.


I will update this post with additional eyewitness testimony as I collect it, with my own contribution in a fresh post after the 20th.  Now if I can just think of a good response to my wife's inevitable question --  "You're going to see this why, exactly?" -- I will have a real sense of accomplishment.

Let's move along to those updates shall we?

  • Alan Rich (whose weblog, soiveheard, I have been unduly slow in adding to the links on your left) reviews The Fly for Daily Variety, succinctly declaring it "a turkey":

What's wrong? You name it. . . .

* * *

On the podium, Placido Domingo is entrusted with trying to impart the spark of life to this lifeless lump.

  • In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed finds all of the positive elements he can but still concludes that, when it comes to commissioning new work at Los Angeles Opera, "music has ranked in importance somewhere below makeup."

I am at a loss to understand why 'The Fly' has turned out so dreary, despite the inclusion of sex, nudity, puppetry and athleticism.

Many ask the same question after a typical evening of premium cable programming. 

  • For the Associated Press, Ronald Blum tries even harder to say something nice, but cannot ignore problems with the score:

The 1950s-style set of the mad scientist's laboratory, with plenty of twinkling lights and screens, is compelling. The libretto is witty and interesting. The performances of the three primary singers are heartfelt. The debate over abortion is attention-grabbing, as is the male nudity.

Ultimately, though, an opera thrives on the composer's creation, and Howard Shore's score is background music with few highlights.

  • NPR has a pre-premiere story on the project, with video.  The video segment, provided to NPR by LA Opera, involves the teleportation of a monkey.  It gives an idea of the score and features the labors of the long-suffering offstage chorus and some nifty primate puppetry.  Oddly, although the two principals are on stage throughout the sequence, neither of them sings.  Also unexplained is where exactly, in the late 1950s, they obtained the convenient handheld video camera with which heroine Veronica Quaife is documenting the seeming success of the experiment.

[W]hile The Fly is not a total disaster, it’s about as close to one as you can get without actually arriving there.

There are echoes here of one of Timothy Mangan's key observations: that material clearly meant by the production team to be taken seriously is, in practice, taken rather otherwise:

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.


Tuesday 9/9/08 - the review rundown continues . . . .

  • Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times joins those supportive of the cast and production design, but actively underwhelmed by the score:

But despite the inventive staging and all-out efforts of an admirable cast — especially the courageous performance of the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle, the obsessed scientist who morphs into the hideous creature he calls Brundlefly — 'The Fly' is a ponderous and enervating opera, and the problem is Mr. Shore’s music.

* * *

The most exasperating stretches of the score come when Mr. Shore is most somber.  Wandering vocal lines intertwine with every-which-way instrumental lines that skirt tonality, while sustained orchestral harmonies provide a static support. With hints of 12-tone rows and Bergian richness, the music shows signs of Mr. Shore’s craft in almost every measure.  But it never adds up.  It’s as if Mr. Shore had abandoned his cinematic imagination to write a dutifully contemporary opera.

A 58-second sample from the score accompanies the article.

  • The production team's fellow Canadian, Robert Everett-Green of the Toronto Globe and Mail, advises "Shoo, Fly, Shoo":

At the end of the 1958 film version of The Fly, a housefly with the head of a man struggles in the web of a hungry spider, shrieking 'Help me! Help me!'  Only opera-house etiquette kept me from doing the same during the interminable second hour of the opera version of The Fly, which settled on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles for its North American premiere on Sunday.

* * *

[A] muddled concept (put into words by librettist David Henry Hwang) and a balked score by Howard Shore have left this Fly buzzing pointlessly against the pane.

Turkeys are again invoked.

Operas can make great movies (Ingmar Bergman's 'The Magic Flute,'' for one); the reverse doesn't work. Howard Shore's 'The Fly'' is a fizzle of epic proportions. . . .

* * *

What goes wrong?  Most of all, Shore's stillborn score, a continual orchestral gurgle over which David Henry Hwang's text rides uneasily, even obtrusively, like an alien voice.

Rich has nothing against film directors in the opera house: in the same piece he joins those praising the work of William Friedkin and, particularly, Woody Allen in directing the Trittico.

  • Finally, Jim Farber of the Daily Breeze gives Timothy Mangan some competition most scathing review:

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.

* * *

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.'



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