Howard Shore, The Fly, 2008. Performance view, Los Angeles Opera, 2008. Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch) and Veronica Quaife (Ruxandra Donose). Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert.

DESPITE A SEQUENCE IN WHICH DANIEL OKULITCH, the talented singer playing the role of the overreaching Seth Brundle, gives the audience a full frontal, Howard Shore’s opera The Fly, staged by David Cronenberg with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, is disconcertingly bland musical theater. Several years in the making, the opera is based on Cronenberg’s 1986 movie for which Shore wrote the score. The production opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris this past July and traveled to the Los Angeles Opera for six performances this month (I attended the one on September 13). This is Shore’s first opera, and as often happens with composers who’ve written with great verve in popular forms (Leonard Bernstein is a case in point), he seems inhibited by the history of modern classical music stretching behind him. The score for The Fly brings to mind operas by composers as dissimilar as Alban Berg and Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, another opera about scientific discovery, is an obvious reference), but lacks the dramatic urgency and restrained romanticism that makes Shore’s movie music so effective and memorable. While not pointedly repetitive, the music is without rhythmic or melodic surprise. There are no arias or set pieces of note, and after a while, the long vocal lines that just skirt atonality combined with bang-on-the-beat orchestral harmonies blur together in a dulling drone.

Released in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Cronenberg’s film was regarded by many as a metaphor for the terrifying transformation and decay of the body wrought by the disease. Cronenberg saw that interpretation as limiting, which in part may account for the decision to set the opera in the ’50s—the decade in which the short story that is the source material for all the Fly movies was published. The other factor may have been the difficulty of rendering a contemporary computerized science lab on the stage.

In any case, the most effective aspect of Dante Ferretti’s set are the two teleportation pods, which look like giant versions of Nam June Paik’s ’50s-era television sculptures, connected by a long control console, on which Brundle has rough, writhing sex on at least two occasions when he’s in the early stage of his metamorphosis into Brundlefly. But the set as a whole, particularly the huge, tastefully painted drop, which hangs at the back of the stage throughout, works against the concept of the opera. The Fly is essentially a chamber work with two lead characters and a handful of supporting players who occasionally make very brief appearances. Told in flashback, the narrative is largely staged in the laboratory that is Brundle’s refuge, but there are also crucial scenes that take place in the world outside the lab—a world that Brundle finds threatening. Ferretti’s set is too inflexible to distinguish these locations, and thus adds to the problem of the overall sameness of the music.

The most dismal, although sometimes laughable, aspect of The Fly is Hwang’s libretto. The playright has a tin ear for dialogue, whether spoken or sung, and his choice of adjectives and metaphors is clunky at best. All the singers have excellent diction, but on several occasions, I had to check the supertitles to make sure I’d heard correctly, as when Brundle, excited by his emerging flylike agility, intones in Valley-girl mode, “Did you see that awesome backflip?” Like a college film-studies student, Hwang grafts references to “The New Flesh,” the central metaphor of Cronenberg’s Videodrome, all over the libretto. The term “The New Flesh” has also been used to characterize Cronenberg’s work in general, and while it is certainly applicable to The Fly, hearing it sung some dozen times is embarrassing—as if a groupie couldn’t get over the fact that Cronenberg had actually been involved in conceiving and executing the opera.

The Fly is the first work Cronenberg has directed for the stage, and despite some obvious Cronenbergian moments, his attempt to make the various unwieldy elements cohere is not particularly distinguished. Denied camera close-ups, the body-horror sequences have little impact, and the love scenes between Brundle and Veronica Quaife (Ruxandra Donose), the science writer who falls for him, while more explicit than what passes for sexual passion in opera, are nevertheless awkward. (Two people who want to bury themselves in each other’s bodies nevertheless have to hold their heads up so that their singing can be heard.) Cronenberg’s best work is his direction of the two principle performers, especially Okulitch. Donose has a rich mezzo voice but not much dramatic range. Okulitch, however, is a captivating singer/actor with a flexible, warm voice who seems to get off on every trick Cronenberg invents for him, which include sustaining a complicated vocal line while hanging upside down from a metal crossbeam structure and crawling, head down, one of its columns. At the climax of the first act, when Brundle, in a fit of anger, strips naked and enters the telepod, Okulitch crouches like Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun minus the loincloth. Emerging triumphant, he faces down the audience (the LA Opera seats about three thousand people) with his beautiful body and very handsome package in full view. Later, in act 2, he dons white boxers and prances around, boasting of his enhanced physical capabilities. The scene, which gives Okulitch a chance to display his ironic wit and comic spontaneity, is the only patch of pure pleasure in The Fly.

Amy Taubin

Two performances of The Fly at the Los Angeles Opera remain, one on Saturday, September 20, at 7:30 PM and the other on Saturday, September 27, at 2 PM. For more information, click here.