Wednesday, July 30, 2008
When I read, around the time of a History of Violence that Cronenberg and Howard Shore were planning to create an opera of The Fly, I was duly fascinated and excited. In July 2007 a press release outlined the co-production between the LA Opera and Paris's Chatalet theatre, and announced its Parisian premiere followed by a September transfer to Los Angeles. Excited I scanned the theatre's site and found tickets available online, a distant year before the curtain went up. Clumsily negotiating their website, I impulsively bagged a pair and penciled a"romantic" (ha-ha) weekend visit to Paris for Mrs Cronendrome and I. Was my anticipation justified? Well yes and no.
The Chatalet theatre stands on the bank of Seine close to Notre-Dame in the cultural heart of Paris. A rather splendid 19th century opera house, the Chatalet boasts a history of premieres by the likes of Stravinsky and Satie. How would Cronenberg's first opera fair here? Would there be a walk out a la The Rites of Spring as Brundlefly inaugurates his natural history museum?
My comments must be first prefaced by the fact I am not a great lover of opera nor fully understand the form. I cannot comment on the technical aspects such as the voices, the range etc but can simply give my opinions on the entertainment value and my notion of its artistic success. I came to this production as an admirer of Cronenberg and equally of Howard Shore's music. I always thought of his score as operatic with its heightened emotional range - a very different score from the one it preceded - Videodrome. The idea of experiencing this score, developed and expanded was an exciting prospect.
Arriving early at the theatre I bought a programme and enjoyed a small exhibition of artifacts related to the various film adaptions of George Langelaan's original 1957 short story. The production stills clearly showed that Cronenberg had opted for a retro fifties setting, the design tapping into that b-movie charm of early film versions of the story.
My early purchase of tickets meant I was three rows from the front in a completely packed house. It became apparent that another important attraction of this production was Placido Domingo who was conducting and as artistic director of the LA Opera was the driving force behind this production. Many were here because of him and there was certainly much excitement when he took the podium.
As the light dimmed, the overture began, a reworking on the film's main title sending shivers of excitement down my spine. The curtain was raised to reveal Brundle's laboratory, the telepods now more like the gaint microwaves joked about in the film than the Ducati piston parts cherished by Cronenberg.
David Henry Hwang's libretto opts to tell the story in flashback as Veronica recounts events to a police officer from the final carnage of the laboratory. This opening image links to the scenes of dereliction that climax both Dead Ringers and Videodrome. Lighting and set design were first rate with an immediate cinematic effect created, the laboratory framed by a giant warehouse facade backdrop. I was also unaware that the opera was song in English and so was pleasantly surprised and we were even treated to both an English and French translation flashed onto a screen above and to the side of the stage.
Slickly the opera retold the major incidents of the film without great alteration. Knowing the film well meant that most of my time was spent wondering how they would do this and that. In fact this faithfulness to the film felt a flaw as you felt that sometimes events were slavishly re staged. Likewise at times the libretto was unintentional comic. When you read the translations of Puccini's operas in English you realise much of the libretto has the characters spouting inanity which is rendered poetic by the beauty of the language and music. Hence when Veronica sings "Be afraid, be very afraid" (and this refrain is used at other points) its absurdity is humourous.
The staging was impressive. Old fashioned stage business was used to transport Brundle between pods that flanked the stage with lashings of dry ice to assist. The baboon was a very effective stick puppet enhanced by lighting and Brundle's computer was used as a chorus to narrate and emphasise ideas. Brundle's transformation was well handled and the visceral make-up effective. At one point he scales the set on a harness re staging the famous ceiling walk from the original film. The Brundle Museum of Natural History and Seth's gradual transformation were simply narrated by the computer chorus and the final confrontation and transformation of Brundle was gory and effective and emotionally engaging. I equally couldn't fault the performers and their dedication to the piece.
Overall a superior entertainment that followed the film closely and staged it with passion and excitement. So what's the problem? Well I was left with the question - Why? When I had joked that they should make an opera of Videodrome it was an outlandish comment. But why not as it seemed The Fly has been transported onto the stage without any real sense of why. I was reminded of the Jeff Goldblum comedy "The Talk Guy", a thespian satire set against the staging of The Elephant Man - the musical! The Fly the opera felt more like an exercise in adaption to a new medium and the creative challenge more a technical one. Thematically I did not see in the libretto anything new although there was emphasis an on the new life that was to come and Veronica's faith in the the Brundle child she was carrying. But the opera did not add to the film themes - common themes in opera of love and death - and so one wonders at its lasting worth. The film yes but the opera? An instance that symbolised this was when the arm wrestling scene was rewritten to give the redneck arm wrestler and girlfriend an inner life. An odd extended production number was inserted here with characters berating their empty violent, lives - sort of Chekhov via Happy Days on acid. The gore was effective but did they need to be given an inner life? In the film the scene is simply to emphasise the changes in Brundle.
In many ways I wished I was witnessing a new original opera by Cronenberg or his radical reworking of an existing repertoire opera. It seemed the impetus for this production was more Placido Domingo's. He wants to popularise opera by bringing the worlds of film and opera together and The Fly to him seemed the perfect synthesis. For Shore I can understand how the challenge of an opera would be relished but I most admit a real disappointment was how the majority of the film score was jettisoned in favour of new music, far from memorable. Only the overture and the opening of the second act retained recognisable themes from the film music. To Cronenberg the opera seemed a technical challenge, a chance to experiment in a new sphere. But in many ways I felt he was far removed from the final piece and I couldn't, beyond the story, see what he wanted to say through this piece. What was there to add that his film did not say or could not say now?
Final comment. See this production: its entertaining and well staged and possibly a "radical" production for an opera stage. If you have never seen the film it will be a revelation. But in terms of its place in Cronenberg's creative work it is more a footnote akin David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1.
Outside the theatre it is a beautiful night and Paris sparkles and dances upon the Seine. I think about the butterfly child once envisaged to end the film, gently flying above the river. Be afraid...be very afraid.