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Summer Opera 2006: "Grendel"

Denyce Graves as the Dragon (top) and Eric Owens as Grendel (bottom), Grendel, Los Angeles Opera, photos by Robert MillardI am way behind in my press roundup work for Opera in the Summer 2006. Now that there are fewer concerts to review, there should be time to catch up, although more recordings keep coming across my desk and I am truly engrossed in my reading of Don Quixote and listening to the Jordi Savall recording. The biggest operatic buzz of the summer was probably for the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, which was supposed to take place on May 27, in a production directed by Julie Taymor at Los Angeles Opera. As we learned from many newspaper reports, the date of the premiere had to be moved back. Here is a snippet from an article (Beastly Computer Glitch Delays 'Grendel' Opera, May 26) by Diane Haithman and Chris Pasles for the Los Angeles Times:

Saturday night's hotly anticipated first performance of composer Elliot Goldenthal's new opera, "Grendel" — directed by his life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, Julie Taymor of "The Lion King" fame — has been canceled because of computer-related troubles with a massive mechanical set piece central to the action, Los Angeles Opera said Thursday. The $2.8-million show, a co-production with New York's Lincoln Center and an undertaking that L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo has called the company's most ambitious to date, will still go on. But the official premiere has been pushed back to June 8, at a cost to the company of more than $300,000. "Grendel" has been plagued by delays throughout its approximately six weeks of rehearsals at the Music Center, in part because of an accident. Last December, Goldenthal fell in his and Taymor's New York home, suffering a head injury that impaired his speech and caused him to lose more than a month of his composing schedule.

Yet as the opening approached, "Grendel" was undone not by the composer's last-minute musical revisions but by a 21st century wrinkle in operatic production: the demands of its sophisticated special effects. "Grendel" tells the story of a man-eating monster from the monster's point of view. But from a staging standpoint, said set designer George Tsypin, theater's new "monster" is the computer.
Now I have read lots of good things about the wild production of The Magic Flute that Taymor directed in New York, but her background is on Broadway, and the values of this production seem to skew all too far toward that art form. The rest of the review is fascinating on this question, as Taymor and other members of the creative team lament that rehearsing and preparing an opera is not like Broadway.

Yes, stage machinery and spectacle, sometimes far more outrageous and lavish than what is seen on Broadway these days, have been a historical part of opera from the beginning. However, the stage effects are supposed to be subservient to the music and the story unfolding. Although I don't wish anyone ill, I did experience a moment of Schadenfreude reading about these technical woes. I was not surprised subsequently to read the ultimately negative reviews of the opera itself, once it finally got off the ground. Here are a few brief selections, beginning with Madeleine Shaner, Spectacle dominates belated "Grendel" opera (Hollywood Reporter, June 15):
Goldenthal's music, in a distant second to the elegant design, registers somewhere under the ether; atonal and monotonous, with only brief snatches of excitement, it lacks any lift or emotional musicality.
David Mermelstein, Taymor's Flash Tops Goldenthal's Score in L.A. Opera 'Grendel' (Bloomberg News, June 9):
Less successful were some of the trademark theatrical devices associated with Taymor, Goldenthal's partner and frequent collaborator. Her puppets yielded mixed results. The large, grotesque creatures that embodied Grendel's family, with misshapen limbs and faces, proved endlessly fascinating. The smaller puppets representing warriors or depicting the near- mutilation of Queen Wealtheow recalled the scene in the movie "This Is Spinal Tap" when a mini-Stonehenge descends from the rafters. Taymor's use of a large dance corps created welcome spectacle, but Angelin Preljocaj's choreography -- with stock movements, simulated sex and stylized warring -- seemed shopworn. And what of the composer's decision to have Beowulf voiced by a chorus but embodied by a dancer? Desmond Richardson, stripped to bikini briefs and liberally tattooed, made a stunning impression in this part, but the reasons for Goldenthal's choice remain obscure.

Of course, this is Grendel's opera, and in Goldenthal's score, bass Eric Owens, looking like a tramp covered in plaster and dirt, has found the role of lifetime. Rarely is he out of the spotlight, and his part, rather than being fearsome, is sympathetic. Too sympathetic, in fact. For thanks to the libretto, credited to Taymor and the poet J.D. McClatchy, much of the duality that characterized Grendel in Gardner's novel has been lost. And good as Owens is as both a singer and an actor, his Grendel is a neutered monster too often played for laughs.
Mark Swed, 'Grendel' is a milestone, of sorts, for L.A. Opera (Los Angeles Times, June 10):
The company had in its 20-year history managed to mount only three premieres — Aulis Sallinen's dreary "Kullervo," Tobias Picker's inconsequential "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and Deborah Dratell's incompetent "Nicholas and Alexandra" — each more disappointing than the last. So with "Grendel," which is subtitled "Transcendence of the Great Big Bad," the cycle has been broken, if the great big bad not exactly transcended. The opera accomplishes little through words or music, but there is quite a bit to look at.
Allan Ulrich, Grendel, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (Financial Times, June 13):
The unenviable task of producing an opera in which the music approaches the expendable has fallen to the Los Angeles Opera. [...] Armed with Taymor and J.D. McClatchy’s libretto (in which humankind sings in Anglo-Saxon), Goldenthal conjures from his oversized orchestra sounds both febrile and alluring. Few of them develop into extended thematic structures. Fewer illuminate the narrative in the way mere words and movement cannot.
For one of the few really positive reviews, we turn to Joshua Kosman, L.A. Opera captures savagery of brilliant 'Grendel' (San Francisco Chronicle, June 10):
Goldenthal's compulsively resourceful score encompasses a rich variety of moods and strategies, from crisp bardic song to tender rhapsody to percussion-driven sonic assaults. Taymor's staging, peopled by the full-size puppets and phantasmagorical stage effects that have marked her work in "The Lion King" and as far back as "Juan Darién," is as visually striking as anything she's done.
Note, however, that Kosman's admiration is mostly focused on the staging. Fool in the Forest has put together a very nice set of links relating to the opera (hat tip to A. C. Douglas for pointing it out). See many more photographs of the production here. I will not be able to catch the planned performance at the Lincoln Center Festival next month, but perhaps Jens can.


Anonymous said...

My pre-emptive apologies, Mr. Downey, but are you posting a review, or a review of It seems that if a informed critisism of a staged performance were in order then to be truly informed, you may have seen it. Anyone who for any reason could pick and choose good or bad sections of any review posted by a number of publications to form a decision on any stage performance. Maybe you should wait for the New York reviewers to post their reviews to form YOUR opinion?
Maybe you should see it yourself, or maybe you've already decided it's no good. I'm sorry, but too many people have decided to "give up" when they don't know all the information available. I havent seen Grendel, but am willing to give it a fair shake without just looking at negative remarks.

Charles T. Downey said...

Allow me to clarify: this is not a review. When I am not able to see something myself, I often do this kind of press roundup post. If I could see "Grendel," believe me, I would. And you definitely should, if you can. Come back and leave another comment when you do.

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for the press round-up on the L.A. production of Grendel, Charles! Given the multi-media nature of the production, and the fact that the visual side has been generally favorably received, perhaps you should check your 'organization's' travel budget and reserves, and see whether Mark wants to attend the NYC Grendel production, along with Jens! Mark could bring his visual and 'alternative' musical insights to the production. Of course, I'll also be interested in Jens response.

And thanks to you and everyone on your team for the very interesting posts this past weekend!

Anonymous said...

Coming from the standpoint of a composer of opera, and one who has seen "Grendel," I disagree with nearly all of these reviews. I align myself much more with Mr. Kosman, who picked up on the various musical themes that are evident throughout the work. Far from being expendable, the music is simply extremely complicated, which leads to a cognitive dissonance in the minds of the audience. As far as the staging appearing as the focus of the work, I believe that this perception occurs because the use of such an extreme visual element is actually necessary to THIS presentation of the opera. This necessity, combined with the difficult-to-comprehend music leads the audience to focus on that which they CAN understand; that is to say, the staging.

This may be a problem in and of itself, but it doesn't make the music inconsequential, or the visual aspect domineering.