Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Fly Really Eats $#*t

It cannot be easy to write a full-evening's length opera under any circumstances. Unless you are another Donizetti, who was so prolific that he was accused of composing with both hands simultaneously, it is a grueling, torturous, mind-bending effort to combine thrilling drama, spectacle, and stirring music, committing it to paper.

Donizetti composing with both hands
Once that is done, of course, the work is then subjected to production, budgets, singers and actors, dancers, chorus members, set designers, rehearsals, tryouts, rewrites, tantrums from every corner, a conductor and the weather during the performance, not to forget tailoring the length to fit the schedule of "when the last train leaves."

So when I say I dislike Howard Shore's opera The Fly, it is not with a flippant sense of "Next!" to push it aside. It might have been a thrilling work, but fell short on so many counts that I cannot believe someone didn't come up to him -- maybe the conductor Plácido Domingo? -- and say, "hey, Howard, this really sucks. Can't you put a little fire under it?" Thus, despite the beautiful sets and props, the best effort singing by a competent cast, and even the presence of bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch's vulnerable nudity on the stage, the work didn't hit the mark.

Yet I keep returning to that long gestation period, where the composer must look at the libretto (David Henry Hwang's middling effort here) and write something that will catch the ear and engage the auditors. Time after time, the composer has opted not to do so, but to lay under the rather random vocal lines a blanket of semi tonal sounds that move up and down one note or two to keep it moving, never resolving, never starting, never ending, in a kind of perpetual limbo of vague sound. With a bland libretto, bland vocal line and barely perceptible accompaniment, we are about as far from "Di Quella Pira" as we can get (just kidding - I am sure there is much worse offered these days).

I would have thought that Halloween would have been a good time to revive the work--but I see no one has, after the Paris premiere and the Los Angeles production soon thereafter.

Since I havent' seen the score much less studied it, I can't say how much thematic unity there is in it. I can hear a punchy sequence in the brass that is repeated infrequently that I take is the 'fly' theme. There are at leasst two 'arias' or set pieces that are extended expressions of the characters' point of view (after which there is sustained applause); but neither of those identifiable cues are in any way moving, or used in a way that ties the experience together for the listener.

It is a tribute to the singers that they could remember those rambling, barely-logical vocal lines that seemed so random. Of course, had they made an error, no one would know - perhaps not even Mr. Shore.

See for yourself.

Truth to tell, the YouTube excerpt culls the very best seconds from the music. I wish it were all as exciting as that! The production looks terrific - something Wagner would have liked; and how it relates to the CD-version of the opera which obviously doesn't tie in the visual, is too much to speculate:

The climactic moment when Veronica sees what a beast her man really is.

The production got it right, it seems. But to have the Lamberghini of opera companies' chorus intoning one note in octaves for pages on end, and to have the string section noodling over three notes for minutes and minutes on end is the sonic depiction of neurasthenia, and it's tantamount to running that sportscar at 15 miles an hour.

I suppose what made the recording worse was the radio interview that is interlarded with the performance (in fact, part of which takes up disc 2 of the set, which you may blamelessly discard or use as a coaster), delivered by two thoroughly uninformed and stultifyingly insipid people. Obviously having nothing to say but the two prepared sentences they have before them, they repeat the same sentences, the same questions, the same idiotic preambles over and over until one is ready to scream.

It's a great preparation for the opera itself. To the composer: "Mr Shore, you've said that you didn't use any music from the 1986 film in the opera. Did you?" Shore: "No, I didn't use any music from the film in the opera." "How would you compare the film music to the music in your opera?" Shore: "Well, I haven't really compared them." Oh, God. this goes on for half-hours at a time. I am surprised that the audience didn't thunderously leave the theater at intermission. Maybe they were expecting more naked people. what a surprise this bedroom scene must have been!

All in all, I admire the spunk of imaginative people to create something new. And indeed, I should not compare The Fly to Le Postillion de Longjumeau or Tosca. People's tastes and appetites change; I simply think Mr. Shore noodled a bit too much around his navel, and forgot the capacity of his audience to stick with the longueurs of his music.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Wagner Juggernaut

Logging in at a mere two-and-a-half hours, Das Rheingold is the baby of all Wagner operas. A mere amuse-bouche to whet the fearsome appetites of the audience for the next 18 hours to come, over two years at the Met. Led by the frail-looking James Levine, he is the puppetmaster-behind-the-curtain, operating the powerful Met Opera orchestral machinery, pulling all the strings and pulling out all the stops. On stage, of course, we have Mr. LePage's staging, which handles all the other possible stops to pull, on a 90,000 pound set, even more than Pavarotti and some of his soprani-consorts. Vide:

It must have been utterly thrilling at the opera-house, to see this all come together (opera can pull it off, despite the celebrated last-minute disappointment of the final effect to work at the premiere--but I'd rather the set stopped than 90,000 pounds of metal crush a Rhinemaiden...). At the theatre, where we sat in rapt anticipation for the opening E-flats, the picture went even flatter:

But no matter; it was the old problem of the sun outshining the satellite signal, and it passed momentarily. The only speeches from the stage were about being sure to hit the head before it all began as there were No intermissions. Of course, going to see a 2-1/2 hour film wouldn't bother anyone, and by all rights, that was what we were going to see.

Terrific singing; terrific production, so ultra high-tech that it was nearly a parallel experience: hearing the opera, watching the set. Like a demonic keyboard it twiddled its keys and shifted its planes, sometimes in concert, sometimes a few boards at a time. Using the sorcery of lighting effects and video effects it became its own creature, far more fearsome than anything Wagner ever cooked up. Everyone singing this difficult music also had to contend with being hooked to a cable and having to defy gravity. The challenge of this production was to set it all right on the hairy edge of ludicrousness. Either you buy it or you don't (yes, I know: all theater is--or should be--that way). Singers arrive tobogganing down the set on sleds that seem to be on fire, glowing beneath them like neon chafing dishes. Loge has a pulsating flame beneath him as he walks, and his fingers light up like some loopy PowerRanger. Fricka has a pulsing, glowing brooch like E.T.'s heart, or the Golem's power-pack. And most amusingly, Alberich turns into a Harry-Potterlike skeletal dragon, then a Warner Bros. cartoon toad. Who says Wagner was too serious? After all, Alberich to me always looked like this:

--and somehow, when you see him in dreadlocks and a Naugahyde lace-up bag he looks more like one of those punch-'em down clowns that always bounce back up (which rather sounds like Alberich). I always think concretizing operatic characters is dangerous.

But Wagner is doubly dangerous, since this particular work has gripped the fascination of the musical world, and everyone and his Uncle Regie thinks they can make it a better experience than another. Elsewhere I have given my opinion as to what these operas are trying to say, and I am always astounded at the perfection of the orchestration and the beauty of the individual scenes, musically. But the question of pacing, of courting the audience's attention, of introduction and summing up are so scrambled and--how you say in English--looseygoosey--that it gets in the way of my total enjoyment of The Ring, and makes Anna Russell's digest of it all the more attractive. It would never fly in Hollywood. You see, this is a great lesson, auditors, this is what happens when you have a writer-composer-director-conductor who is given "free rein" to create, with no boundaries, no editors, no out-of-town tryouts. I am an active proponent of the One-Evening Ring (see: Sigurd), or maybe a nice two-evening Ring. But we are stuck with what Wagner gave us, and with all his faults it's he they adore. Rather like Wotan and his peek-a-boo locks.