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Film People Hit And Miss at LA Opera

September 9, 2008

Over the past couple of days in Los Angeles, I was reminded once again of just how completely different the business of telling stories on stage is to attempting the same on screen.

LA Opera gave two first-time opera directors -- Woody Allen and David Cronenberg -- the chance to apply their seasoned filmmaking skills to a pair of opera productions, both of which opened over the weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. Allen mostly got away unscathed with his staging of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, but Cronenberg's adaptation of his 1986 horror flick, The Fly, made me wonder if the director had ever been to see a stage production in his life before.

Allen's staging of the most well-known of the three one-act operas that make up Puccini's Il Tritticoin some ways resembles a typical Allen movie. The noisy Italian family at the heart of Puccini's farce could be one of Allen's Jewish clans. The characters might have stepped out of Radio Days or Manhattan. In familiar territory, Allen seems to understand the people in Puccini's story and creates boisterous, visually and physically dense scenes in which there is so much action that one feels like one is watching a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Despite the humor of the production, there are a couple of aspects of Allen's opera debut that bother me. The first is to do with the fact that the director plays safe -- he basically plunks a scenario from one of his vintage films on stage. The second is to do with his weird approach to curtain calls. This sounds insignificant, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth as I left the opera house. Seemingly -- and somewhat pointlessly -- attempting to subvert traditions, Allen had each member of his sizable cast bow individually not once, not twice, but three times. By the time the performers were taking their third set of bows, the audience had gotten fed up with clapping and was starting to wonder what was going on. Meanwhile, the great man himself never bothered showing up on stage. I felt sorry for the singers having to go through this bizarre routine. Instead of leaving the stage on a wave of applause (as was the case for the first two acts of Il Trittico directed by William Friedkin) they left under a cloud of disgruntlement and confusion. Not a great way to end an otherwise pretty great night out at the opera. What was Allen trying to prove?

Cronenberg showed a similar lack of understanding of theatrical mores with his production of The Fly. I have to admit that I feel a bit sorry for the movie director, whose work on screen I have long admired. Cronenberg is rather out of his element on stage. He fails to find elegant solutions to problems like how to get people and furniture on and off in between scenes. The piece lacks strong visual and dramatic metaphors. The storytelling system is so literal, from scientist Seth Brundle's latex fright suits to journalist Veronica Quaife's refusal to smoke because she's pregnant to the copious amounts of bad simulated sex, that it's hard to take the piece seriously at any level. Audience members kept giggling during the opening matinee at parts that weren't -- as far as I could tell -- meant to be funny. The literal approach works fine on screen, but it doesn't fly on stage. Cronenberg at least has the benefit of working with terrific actors -- Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is particularly striking and conflicted as world-changing scientist/mad genius Brundle. The Fly's problems are not all Cronenberg's fault: Howard Shore's music is terribly weak -- I don't think I've heard a more monotonous and forgettable operatic score in years. And David Henry Hwang's repetitive libretto, with its constant doomsday refrain of "all hail the new flesh!" is more embarrassing than revealing of some important message about the nature of scientific discovery.

Ultimately, the prize for best director over the weekend shouldn't go to either novice. It must go to Friedkin, a veteran filmmaker (The Exorcist, The French Connection) whose opera career extends back a decade to a Florentine production of Wozzeck. I was particularly won over by Friedkin's take on the second part of Il Trittico, Suor Angelica. Having never experienced the opera live on stage, I had no idea that Puccini's convent-based tear-jerker about a bunch of nuns could be so overwhelmingly moving. Thanks to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's stomach-convulsing turn in the title role and Friedkin's sensitive use of light, bold approach to iconography and meditative, almost sculptural blocking framework, this kitschy one-act stole my heart on a balmy Los Angeles Saturday night.

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