Howard Shore - The Fly

Châtelet, Paris, Tuesday July 8 2008

Conductor: Placido Domingo. Production: David Cronenberg. Sets: Dante Ferretti. Costumes: Denise Cronenberg. Lighting: A.J. Weisbard. Seth Brundle: Daniel Okulitch. Veronica Qaife: Ruxandra Donose. Stahis Borans: David Curry. Femal Officer, Cheevers, Lab Doctor: Beth Clayton. Marky: Jay Hunter Morris. Tawny: Lina Tetruashvili. Make-up and special effects: Stephan L. Dupuis. Ochestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Châtelet chorus. Youth choir of the CRR of Aubervilliers-la-Courneuve.

The critics may not have liked it much, but the public seemed to enjoy it. The Fly is, fittingly, a bizarre sort of genetic fusion. It combines a lurid sci-fi story - a rarity on the opera stage, though quite a welcome change to me - with a score of grimly serious intent; philosophical reflection (albeit not so high-flying) and real emotion with credibility-stretching special effects and cartoon-series scenes reminiscent of Who Killed Roger Rabbit; an uneasy blend of Broadway/Hollywood values and the values of the opera house.

To cut a long story short (that's fitting too; Shore should take heed) act 2 is better than act 1 (fortunately I was warned not to leave at half time). The story and score both take a long time to get going, rambling, as the plot is set, through wordy recitative like a not-so-amiable tapeworm. In both acts, to push things forward, the expedient was to have the (invisible) chorus of computers monotonously recite clunky narratives broadcast simultaneously on the lab TV monitors. This smacked of desperation. Shore's act 1 scoring is short-winded, one brief, charmless phrase after another, with no clear vocal line and unsubtle, colourless orchestration. Things liven up once the first baboon gets cooked, then the second lives and finally, to end the act, Brundle teleports successfully.

In act 2, drama really takes over as the Fly comes out in Brundle, and Shore gives more for the soloists to sink their teeth into. Daniel Okulitch was so convincingly lacking in personality in act 1 that it looked like he might actually have none, but he proved otherwise as he sank progressively into madness and aggression, then decrepitude and pathos. Okulitch has a beautiful light-gold timbre and quite a powerful voice, though the lower register tended to get lost over the pit: an insider tells me Domingo blamed his struggle to keep the volume down on the score, but it seemed to me his conducting was in any case more dogged than inspired and nuanced. The baritone was, however, upstaged by mezzo Ruxandra Donose. She had, I think, been saving her voice in act 1, when it verged on irritatingly tremulous, but here she sang up a storm in the genuinely moving big numbers now supplied by Shore. Okulitch, who spent a lot of time undressed, and Donose made, as the cliché goes, a "convincing" couple of lovers. As one of the messages of this work is that you don't have to be beautiful to deserve to be loved, the production team's insistence on good-looking principals struck me as a touch ironic.

The staging somehow had an all-American look to it that cried out "Broadway", and naturally the story brought to mind Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera (and King Kong) more than, say, Otello. There was a single set: Seth's lab, apparently high up behind the giant, iron-framed windows of a red-brick warehouse building, with wooden floors, on the docks. To the rear was Brundle's "mad-scientist" console, complete with piano keys; and to each side, a "pod", a sort of giant fridge bristling with pipes and wires and coloured lights, with a black and white TV screen on the door. For changes of location, props were wheeled in: a desk for the magazine office, a café and pool table as the word "bar" appeared in red neon at the giant window, a mattress for olympic bouts of sex (there were moments when the text made the audience laugh), piles of litter as Brundle degenerated. The costumes were primly-tailored, tight-waisted fifties style.

The acting was efficient but, as I mentioned above, closer to cartoon-strip style than the realism of, say, a Marthaler. So while some of the big, emotional numbers worked (carried, especially, by the commitment of Donose), the bar scene, supposedly a vignette of disillusioned, degenerate youth, looked more like something cheerfully 50s from Happy Days or Grease. Marthaler and Viebrock would have attained a different degree of sleaze. The special effects (baboon and monster marionettes, a broken arm, Brundle's grisly transformation) were very well handled, staying on the right side of risible. And there were some very fine moments, notable Brundle emerging and stretching stark naked against the bright interior light of the pod to end act 1.

The audience, itself a hybrid of operagoers and Cronenberg fans, liked it. But Shore should at least go back to the drawing board and hack half an hour out of Act 1. And my real feeling was that the story and staging would have been better served, generating greater emotion, by a more openly Broadway or Hollywood score, something with more élan along the lines of Star Wars or E.T. It will be interesting to see how Shore's uncharismatic, uncomfortable music fares in Los Angeles.

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