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Adieu, Adele, Farewell

Yesterday afternoon, I played hooky from the office and trundled off to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to view the five Gustav Klimt paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis and recently retrieved through diligent lawyering.  (Previous posts on the Klimts: March 16 and April 7.) 

Today is the last day to see the paintings in Los Angeles.   Lines will likely be long: there was a 45-minute wait at around 4:00 p.m. yesterday.  I overheard security staff reporting that the lines have been long throughout the paintings' display, and they can only have become longer in the past few weeks since the centerpiece of the room, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, became the world's most expensive painting when cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder purchased it -- for New York's Neue Galerie, where all five paintings will be going on display beginning July 13 -- for $135 Million.  In any case, what's 45 minutes when you get to gaze on the face of eternity, eh?

While seeing the first portrait of Adele is the reason for most visitors' visit to the show, the other four paintings are also very fine.  Adele Bloch-Bauer II, painted five years after A B-B I, gives an idea of what Matisse might have produced if he had painted Viennese society women instead of odalisques.

As a parting gift to Ms. Bloch-Bauer, this Fool is inspired to his first double-dactyl since last October:


Klimtadeleblochbauer_1Not Every Flower in Austria's
an Edelweis

Glimmering, glistering,
Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer's
Blazoned with eyes from her
Thighs to her shoes:

Fräulein von Österreich,
Jugendstil patroness,
Fin de sièclische
Viennese muse.


Bonus Artsy Applet:  By way of Lifehacker, it's the Rijkswidget, available in Windows and Mac flavors, delivering each day a fresh work from the collections of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam to your desktop.

Beyond Gouda and Evian

Nietzsche by Munch - excuse the pun

To the devout, the notion of anything but cereal for breakfast produces anxiety and dread, but with the death of God anything is permitted, and profiteroles and clams may be eaten at will, and even buffalo wings.

In the New Yorker, Woody Allen reveals the diet secrets of Friedrich Nietzsche: "Thus Ate Zarathustra."

[Via Cosmopoetica .  Pretty good late-period Woody but, darn it, his New Yorker pieces used to be reallly funny.]

Apres Nous, le Grendeluge

Grendel's enormous puppet avatar is in the house

Take the sun from my heart
Let me learn to despise

--Richard Thompson, "Tale in Hard Time" (Fairport Convention, 1969)

In the closing pages of John Gardner's Grendel, Grendel -- our hero the monster -- is set upon by Beowulf -- our monster the hero -- who gets him into an ironclad armlock, smacks his head repeatedly against the wall of the meadhall and demands that he sing.  After trying sarcasm without success -- "Hooray for the hardness of walls!" -- Grendel sings:

The wall will fall to the wind as the windy hill
will fall, and all things thought in former times:
Nothing made remains, nor man remembers.
And these towns shall be called the shining towns!

In the closing minutes of Elliot Goldenthal's opera Grendel, as Grendel is on the verge of death, those same lines are given to the massed male and female chorus in what is probably the best sustained passage of intentionally attractive music in the work.  The moment serves nicely as a pin from which to hang my own impressions of the opera's premiere production, now concluded in Los Angeles and en route to New York for a four-performance run at Lincoln Center.

For the most part, I go along with the trend of the commentary compiled below:  As a production, it was impressive from beginning to end, with director Julie Taymor rolling out every trick in the theatrical book short of indoor fireworks.  Count it down: Masks?  Check.  Small puppets?  Check.  Really large puppets?  Check.  Scrims and strobes and projections?  Check.  Not to mention a huge smoke-snorting dragon's head with a diva on its tongue.  And a lightning fast dancing Beowulf -- albeit one with choreography undercut at a few points by its resemblance to a particularly cutthroat game of Charades.  As she has shown repeatedly in her career, Ms. Taymor knows how to achieve an impressive, resonant stage effect seemingly at will.

The singing actors and chorus were superb.  Eric Owens displayed range, strength, nuance and a wicked sense of humor in the title role.  Denyse Graves snarled and scoffed in high existential style as The Dragon.  [Oh! just once, though, won't LA Opera allow Ms. Graves a role in which she is not decked out as a grotesque?]

Elliot Goldenthal's score is . . . entirely functional, highly effective in short bursts, but not ultimately memorable -- although a handful of passages might become so if you heard them more than once.  [I have it on good authority, from my sister in the chorus, that the score does grow on one with repeated exposure.]  I would not object to hearing it again, but I don't know that I would go out of my way to listen to it on its own.

Musically, Grendel is not a self-consciously cutting edge piece, nor is it particularly backward looking.  While Goldenthal rarely goes out of his way to be openly melodic, neither does he insist on producing a willfully raw or ugly sound.  We're not in Pucciniland anymore, but we are in a relatively comfortable part of the forest of contemporary serious music.  In the realm of post-19th century opera, Grendel does not move terribly far beyond, say, Benjamin Britten in the use of dissonance -- we're not talking Berg or Schoenberg or even Janacek here -- and Goldenthal is adept at trotting out tonal colors from Wagner, Richard Strauss, and the more approachable theatrical work of John Adams or Philip Glass as needed.  All of those influences come in brief dollops, however, and the score never settles into a distinctive mode that we can say "is" the essential sound of Goldenthal or of Grendel.  (LA Opera's site provides a link to the composer's own notes on his approach to the score.)

The libretto credited to Julie Taymor and J.D. McClatchy works well largely because, by my estimate, some 90% or so is drawn directly from the text of Gardner's novel.  It is an effective adaptation for the same reason the John Huston's screenplay for The Maltese Falcon is effective: it is as much as anything a transcription of a strongly written original.  The quarrels I have with the Grendel libretto tend to be with those very few points where it strays from the novel, e.g., providing a childhood "back story" for Grendel involving his accidental dismembering of a playmate, adding in a dream sequence -- which looked wondrous even if it was totally unnecessary -- in which Grendel sails across the sky in a crystal boat serenading Hrothgar's queen not long before he almost dismembers her.   In these cases, there seems to have been a surrender in the direction of sentimentality, and Grendel is a decidedly unsentimental book.  On the whole, they are minor missteps and while it is easy to imagine how the libretto could have done much worse in translating its source to the stage, it would be difficult to make it much better.

If there are any New Yorkers reading this and wondering whether they should seek out tickets to the Lincoln Center run, my answer is "yes, you should."  Grendel is an imperfect opera, but its relative weakness musically is counterbalanced by the strength of its libretto and, in this production, by the commitment and high skill of the performers.  Grendel is more an impressively picturesque foothill than a towering pinnacle of the operatic art, but it is no self-indulgent embarrassment and can hold its head up respectably in company.

It will be interesting to see whether other companies and other directors will eventually try (or be permitted to try) their hands at Grendel.  A stage work "lives" only to the extent that it can be constantly restaged and rethought.  A badly conceived version of Shakespeare or Chekhov or Wagner can be acutely painful to sit through, but the fact that directors are attracted to re-mounting those works, even misguidedly or stupidly, confirms that the works themselves have established their long term value.  The standard dramatic and operatic repertoire consists, or should consist, of those dramas that can sustain repeated viewings through vastly differing lenses and still produce something essentially true.

One reason to hope for future productions is the issue of scale.  Grendel the novel is not an epic work: it comes in at fewer than 200 pages and consists of Grendel monologuing brilliantly, giving us a version of the life even now flashing before his eyes.  With Julie Taymor's eye-popping production, and Elliot Goldenthal's large-ensemble orchestration, this first performance version of Grendel the opera is in many ways just too ostentatiously Big.  An enterprising company could probably mount a more intimate version, a chamber Grendel, to good effect, allowing the audience to get closer and more personal with its complicated monster protagonist.  Of course, the Dragon would still have to be as big as the company can manage.  The Dragon demands and expects nothing less.

To conclude: I am happy to have seen and heard Grendel and I imagine that others will be also.  I am curious to see whether Grendel has what it takes to last once it leaves the hands of its creators, and I wish the poor old world-rim walking monster well.

[Giant Grendel puppet photo by Robert Millard, via LA Opera.  There are many more large, high-resolution photos where that came from.]

UPDATEs [062306]:

An interesting post-production tidbit:  The Los Angeles Times reports that Grendel acquitted itself well at the box office -- so much so that LA Opera is making tentative plans to bring it back at the start of the 2007-2008 season, if Eric Owens' performance schedule can be arranged so as to permit him to re-essay the title role. 

The latter performances of this run sold out and Grendel not only managed to recoup the $300,000 lost by the cancellation of its May 27 premiere, it brought in $70,000 more than had been anticipated in the budget.  Opera traditionalists can take heart, though, from this statistic:

Despite its success, 'Grendel' was no 'La Traviata.'  A new production of the Verdi war horse — this one directed and designed by Marta Domingo, wife of company general director Plácido Domingo — ran in repertory with Goldenthal's opera.

'Basically, we're looking at making $150,000 better than projected for "Traviata,"' Baitzel says.  'Overall, our ticket revenue for the season will be three-quarters of a million in the black over our projected ticket revenue. We have no reason to complain.'

Also: Thanks to AC Douglas' Sounds & Fury and to Charles Downey of ionarts for their links to this weblog's earlier Grendel compilation post.

Please Bear With Me

So, you may ask, where is the promised review of the closing Los Angeles performance of Grendel, to top off the world's largest single online compilation of Grendeloperalia?  Still in process, I am sorry to say, due to the press of other business.  Patience, patience, those two or three among you actually awaiting it.

Meanwhile, best pal Rick Coencas has returned from vacation in the Great Northern Tier of our Great Nation, and has restarted posting at the Futurballa Blog, with the photographic tale of some bears going over the mountain.  He promises more.  (Please, sir, may we have some moose?)

To encourage Rick, and to welcome him back to blogging, here is a totally unnecessary electrotechnofied remix of perhaps his all time favorite Roxy Music song:

[Rixy remox via Spoilt Victorian Child and team9.]

Darthness on the Edge of Town

Which is more shameful, friends?  That I was reading The Corner at National Review Online in the first place, or that I am the unnamed "reader" who felt compelled to correct Jonah Goldberg concerning Star Wars lore?  Mr. Goldberg writes:

From a reader:


    Your analysis of the non-rightwing nature of Darth Vader’s history contains a clear terminological error.  So far as I can tell from episodes 1-3, 'Darth' is not a name but a title, indicative that its bearer is one half of the then-extant pair of Sith.   Hence, Darth Maul [who has no other identity we know of], Darth Tyrannus [aka Count Dookoo] and the Emperor Palpatine as Darth Sidious.  Darth is the equivalent of 'Sir' or 'Lord' (or 'Dark Lord').

    Don’t feel bad, though: Obi-Wan Ben Kenobi makes the same error in Episode IV.

Me: Point taken.  However, the Count on Sesame Street is often called "count" as if it was a first name too.  And his dialogue is often better written than the junk we heard in the last couple Star Wars movies. 

This, if you are curious, is the item that inspired my moment of weakness.  O! the ignominy of it all!

Gluttin' for Punishment 'Round the Billabong

The extraordinary international growth of the Australian wine industry over the past decade -- during which it made sizable inroads into the North American market and surpassed France as the largest source of wine in the UK -- has caught up with growers and winemakers.  Blair Speedy -- and isn't that a proper name for an Australian journalist? -- reports for The Australian:

Growth in exports and domestic consumption has slowed, grape prices have crashed and growers contracts have been cancelled as the industry wrestles with a problem that echoes the famous European wine lake of the early 1990s.

Australia already has a surplus of 900 million litres of wine - enough to fill 300 Olympic swimming pools or pour 7.5 billion standard glasses.

It's a massive hangover after a decade of booming growth in the wine industry and one that is causing as big a headache for all involved as you might get from the only other solution to the problem: drinking it.

Indeed, that is the solution that the federal Government appears to be advocating, telling the industry this week that rather than seeking handouts it needs to work on demand-side solutions. Drinkers are the only real beneficiaries of the grape glut.  Boutique wineries are selling their $50-a-bottle pinot noir as $15 cleanskins and even the largest groups, such as McGuigan Simeon, have had to slash the value of their inventories.

* * *

Over 10 years, Australia's vineyards have more than doubled in size to 154,000 ha, and are now producing about 2 million tonnes of grapes a year, up from 883,000 tonnes in 1996.

We weren't alone.  Winemakers in North and South America and South Africa - quaintly referred to as the 'new world' in the Eurocentric globe of wine terminology - ramped up their production.

And while Australian wine may have retained an edge over the rest of the new world in terms of quality, its affordability has taken a battering as the Australian dollar has risen more than 50 per cent in the past five years - a significant headwind when you consider the low labour costs available to producers in South America.

The whole article is well worth your time, especially the anecdote at the end about the great vine-pull of the mid-1980's.  [Link via Colby Cosh's constantly-interesting-if-irregularly-posted International Press Roundup.]

This time last year, it was the French who were suffering from excess production, and I had a helpful suggestion for them:

Some aspiring French entrepreneur needs to emulate California's Fred Franzia and his Charles Shaw brand, better known as "Two Buck Chuck."  Buy up all that excess supply, especially that "supposedly medium quality" Bordeaux.  Bottle it.  Sell it at an absurdly low price to thirsty French and Americans.  Give the product a sunny Gallic brand name such as "Bon Francois," then -- and this is the critical bit -- let it become known by the perfect snappy nickname, one that harks back to those halcyon, romantic days before the adoption of the Euro.  I refer, of course, to . . . "Deux Franc Frank!"

[Footnotes omitted.]

The same notion ought to work for our Australian friends: sell it all to the Trader Joe's stores and let them market it cheaply, perhaps with a cuddlesome eucalyptophiliac marsupial on the label.  Yeah, that's it: We can call it . . . Two-Dollah Koala!

[updated through 6/22/06]


I have been following the progress of the Elliot Goldenthal/Julie Taymor opera version of John Gardner's Grendel for some time here.  The work was supposed to have been premiered by Los Angeles Opera on May 27, but ongoing difficulties with the production's elaborate, computer- dependent set delayed the official World Premiere until last night.  This from the Los Angeles Times' summary of the production's troubles:

'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, [composer] Goldenthal fell in his and [director] 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.

* * *

In this case, the production ran, quite literally, up against 'the wall' — an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton set piece run by 26 motors.  About 80% of the opera's action takes place on this "ice-earth unit," as it is more formally known.

The $900,000 set piece is designed to move back and forth and to rotate to show two seasons in the opera's version of the Anglo-Saxon epic 'Beowulf': one representing frosty winter and the other an earthy spring.

I will be catching up with the final Los Angeles performance -- before the opera heads off for a brief July run at Lincoln Center -- on June 17 and will provide a firsthand report then.*  Meanwhile, I will use this post to accumulate links and commentary as I find them. 

If you have any interest in this production, check back here over the coming weeks.

  • Bloomberg's David Mermelstein has produced the first review that I have found of the premiere. 

His is a lukewarm response at best, identifying strengths and weaknesses largely consistent with reports I have had from my personal source inside the production: the principal singers -- Eric Owens as Grendel and Denyce Graves as The Dragon -- are reportedly superb, the difficult computer- operated set is impressive and worked smoothly, and Julie Taymor's direction amid her trademark puppets, dancers, etc. is sometimes effective and sometimes, er, not --

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.

The opera as a total work doesn't quite gel for Mr. Mermelstein.  He is particularly not much taken with Goldenthal's score, which he characterizes as a "pastiche of Philip Glass, Carl Orff and countless cinematic motifs."

  • PlaybillArts has photos, the first actual stage shots I have seen.  Opera purists beware: that looks to be a [gasp, shudder] microphone clipped 'round Grendel's left ear . . . . 

The LAT previously posted a nice portfolio of rehearsal and pre-production photos.

  • Kyle Wilson of the Frank's Wild Lunch blog was there for what turned out to be the premiere and files two reports, here

It just felt like a mess to me.  A big, inspired, beautifully performed, occasionally brilliant, definitely eye-catching, sprawling, frustrating mess.

and here (spotting instances of four of the eight "things for American opera directors to avoid when they start emulating Eurotrash opera trends").   Oh dear.

  • [Update: scroll down to the additions to this post from Monday, June 12, for comment from a member of the Grendel ensemble responding to FWL's Eurotrash critique.]

I was willing to allow a few technical snafus during the run of the show on Saturday afternoon, but what we got was far from that.  The singers were great (especially Eric Owens as the misunderstood monster, and the inimitable Denyce Graves as a diva of a dragon lady with a Fabulous boa!), the costumes were beautiful, the musicians were exemplary.  The choreography (by Angelin Preljocaj) was fine, but I've been having hang-ups about every opera I've seen lately turning into a modern dance concert at the oddest times.  This production was better about it than most, but I still think dance can be integrated more smoothly.  The music had amazing moments of grandeur and wonderful bits of repose, but was in bad need of an editor's swift knife.  There were far too many ponderous moments for my personal taste.  When the whole thing was on, however, the whole thing was ON.

She has quarrels with the production's cavalier attitude toward sight lines, however.

  • [060906 1724 PDT]  Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register grants unto Grendel its first more or less unqualified rave:

A debacle in the making, you would think, but what emerged instead proved a brilliant night of theater, a sophisticated, thought-provoking story with a compelling, sympathetic central character, music that was well up to the task of telling the story, and a visual style that served the narrative even as it made the eyes pop.

* * *

Even better – this is opera, after all – is that Goldenthal's music doesn't suffer in comparison. The composer . . . here forges a polished mélange of styles – you can say that it's derivative or that he has a large vocabulary – that includes various avant-garde techniques, generous doses of neoclassical Stravinsky and, especially, recent John Adams, as well as, perhaps inevitably but suitably, Wagner. The monster's music booms darkly and imposingly in the heavily populated lower reaches of the orchestra, and the violent scenes clang with an arsenal of percussion.

  • And, as the last addition for this evening, here's tomorrow morning's review today, from Mark Swed of the LA Times, declaring Grendel to be "the most ambitious, spectacular and successful new opera yet from Los Angeles Opera," but otherwise mustering only modified rapture:

There is grandeur of scale everywhere in "Grendel," including in the large, diverse orchestra that Goldenthal uses and in some of the gothic language of the libretto by Taymor and J.D. McClatchy.  The opera feels long — the first act is just under 1 1/2 hours, the second a little less than an hour.  Yet Grendel appears small. 

That is because he is small, or at least human-sized, and because the music doesn't make him larger.  Goldenthal's score passes time.  His talent for theater and film music is that of a hit-and-run artist, able to create mood and, when needed, mayhem in short bursts.

'Grendel' is not without such compelling short bursts, but the score is mostly glue.  The musical styles are mostly borrowed, and Goldenthal's ongoing problem is how to get from this John Adams bit to that Carl Orff bit.

(Both the Times and Register reviews are accompanied by fresh photos of the production, which most everyone seems to agree looks mightily impressive.)

  • [061006 0920 PDT]  Saturday morning, and Grendel reports continue to roll out. 

Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle is another enthusiast for the work and production.  Notable if only because one so rarely encounters agreement between citizens of San Francisco and Orange County on much of anything.

  • The anonymous academic behind the xoom weblog has a good deal of intelligent, generally favorable, comment, including the relationship between the opera, John Gardner's book (extra points are earned by mentioning its original illustrations, which I have always liked -- Gardner was strongly of the view that there should be a visual element to the presentation of fiction and nearly all of his novels and story collections included illustrations in their original editions) and the original Beowulf.   J.D. McClatchy is caught out mixing his Old English and Middle English in the libretto.   And there is a good description of what you get with a Los Angeles opera audience:

I was a bit worried about the sartorial angle, but in the event I need not have.  Loitering on the terrace of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a split of champagne beforehand, we noted people dressed in everything from one-off designer silk evening gowns to librarian jumpers so frumpy even I wouldn't even wear them on laundry day.  And the range for the men stretched from white-tie evening wear to pastel polo shirts and khakis.

A post at Bryan Frank's beFrank blog provides photographic evidence of the above observation, from a matinee "preview" performance.  (Scroll down to the photo captioned "Check us out in our opera attire.")

  • [061206 0855 PDT] Your Monday Morning Singing Monster update follows:

John Farrell, writing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram earns the distinction of being the first reviewer I have found to show enthusiasm for Elliot Goldenthal's score:

Taymor, best known for Disney's "The Lion King," has again created a thrilling visual stage spectacular, and for those who love opera as showmanship, this opera is wonderful to see.

But music and the dramatic arc of a story are what make opera, and Goldenthal's music for "Grendel" is amazing stuff: modern but not abrasive, intelligent, witty, willing to quote other works, to use every musical trick and style for its success.

Goldenthal has created a work of deep passion mixed with pathos, comedy and murderous drama. If the cast had merely stood on stage and sung, "Grendel" would have still been a musical success.

  • Brian Dickie, the weblogging General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, points to reader-generated reviews in the Los Angeles Times (here), which fail on the whole to adhere to the Thumper Doctrine -- "If you can't say anything nice, . . . ."
  • On his splendidly-named weblog, Unlocked Wordhoard, Professor Richard Nokes of Troy, Alabama, reports that the medievalists are alarmed at the prospect of an operatic Grendel.
    • Correction [061306] per Professor Nokes' update to his post:

"Just to clarify, Fool reports that I have said medievalists are 'alarmed' ... no, no, I said 'amused,' 'pleased,' and 'horrified,' but not alarmed."

  • Los Angeles Opera has unlocked its photo hoard relating to the production: 33 large images, most of which have not yet been attached to published reviews.  Look!  It's Hrothgar's Tractor!

    'That's Hrothgar's Hall of Farm Equipment, friends, freeway close in Downtown LA!'

  • The Chorus Responds: "Staring" is one of the forbidden production practices spotted in the second Frank's Wild Lunch post linked above, in which it is suggested that the Grendel chorus has been instructed to march downstage looking "forceful."  A member of that hard working lyric body assures me by e-mail that there are Practical Explanations for Everything:
  • If we seem intense, it is because we are staring at the LCD monitors in the pit which contain the face and hands of our prompter.   We are also fervently hoping that the platforms on which we stand have been designed to hold the collective weight of 12 -16 average opera choristers.

  • Judging from Google News results, most of the world is getting its information on the opera from this Reuters report that went out on Saturday.  You needn't bother with it, as it merely summarizes other reviews that had already been linked here on Friday.  Take that, major media!  How does it feel to be scooped by a fool?
  • [061304 1535 PDT]  Although he has produced a wide range of work Elliot Goldenthal is known to his largest public as a composer for film, so I suppose it comes as no surprise that his Grendel score gets a favorable hearing from Ross Care, writing for the journal Music from the Movies:

. . . Goldenthal’s score, in spite of its often-craggy contemporary edge, is essentially lyrical.  The opera is structured in two acts and twelve scenes but the composer’s more extreme orchestral passages are generally reserved for the transitional and choreographic passages whereas his writing for voices and the large chorus is surprisingly expressive and idiomatic.  I would not dare take on a complex score such as this in detail after only one hearing, but such passages as the dragon’s aria near the end of act one (backed up by its own tail in the form of three coloratura sopranos!), Queen Wealtheow’s quietly rhapsodic and sustained aria in act two, and many other moments are stunningly immediate and appealing.

The choral conclusion of the entire opera is developed from one of the most beautiful melodies I have heard in either a new operatic (or film) score in some time.  It appears out of nowhere, stated first (as I recall) in solo voice doubled with unison cello section, and swells to a stirring climax, this all capped by one of the shortest operatic death scenes on record. . . .

  • Daily Variety has photos of an opening night reception.   Eric Owens, still in full costume and swamp-chic makeup, is seen asking Star Wars composer John Williams whether George Lucas might be persuaded to digitally insert Grendel in place of Jar Jar Binks next time he re-tools the saga.
  • Notes from the Pit: Pasadena-based guitarist Paul Viapiano is a member of the 100-piece orchestra for Grendel . . . and he has a weblog.   Here, a post from just after the postponement of the premiere with some technical detail:

Written for a 100-piece orchestra, two electric guitars, electric bass and another huge percussion setup (which also includes electronics), Grendel aims to make a big musical statement.  The electric guitar parts range from twinkly music box sounds utilizing artificial harmonics to wildly distorted raw chords.  I’m also doubling on electric bass for several scenes, which is an unusual double for a guitarist, but there’s not enough written to warrant the hiring of an extra player, and besides, it’s a lot of fun!

and here some additional remarks on Goldenthal's score:

Anyway, it was hard to put a finger on the musical style of the opera because it was such a moving target.  It ranged from tonal to atonal, rock to punk to funk, with even some jazzy interludes that sounded straight out of 1970s TV detective shows.  But I thought the music was at its best when he tweaked the more traditional classical style on its ear in such beautiful pieces as 'The Queen’s Eyes' and 'Flight of Fancy'.  Elliot’s talent is far-reaching and very broad. It covers every base and that’s why I’m looking forward to hearing his next project.  Besides, how can you not love a guy who writes for not one, but two screaming electric guitars in an opera?

How can you not, indeed, when you get to be one of the guitarists?

  • [061406 0910 PDT]:  Alan Ulrich's review in the Financial Times snipes in epic fashion at Goldenthal's score.  Excerpt, with choicest insults highlighted:

The unenviable task of producing an opera in which the music approaches the expendable has fallen to the Los Angeles Opera.   But Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor’s version of John Gardner’s 1971 cult novel has set a standard in a city where spectacular trappings are sometimes confused with profundity.  Whatever virtues elude this dramatisation of the Old English Beowulf epic, recounted from the monster’s point of view, sheer theatrical legerdemain is not among them.

* * *

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.

It is no surprise that Goldenthal’s carnivorous protagonist devolves into an existential bore before he meets his end, administered artfully by a silent Beowulf (the dancer Desmond Richardson).  The bass Eric Owens copes heroically with Grendel’s multiple monologues, although the tessitura often dips too low for comfort.  Singing in registers never intended by nature, and costumed like a radicchio salad, the mezzo- soprano Denyce Graves proves a wily dragon hoarding her gold. . . .


  • [061606 0845 PDT]  With only one performance remaining -- Saturday's closing night, from which I will finally be able provide my own firsthand report, for which I know at least one member of the chorus is waiting -- Grendel write-ups continue to trickle in.

At the outset of an overall favorable notice at Unnatural Acts of Opera, we find this vivid description of Goldenthal's score:

Benjamin Britten on crack, . . . with an electric guitar in the pit.

As with just about every other review, this one includes lavish praise for Eric Owens in the grueling title role:

He sang extremely well in the challenging role, whether booming his violent torments at human kind over blaring horns or producing an beautiful pianissimo as the monster dies, and deserves more exposure than he has gotten.   After Grendel, Wotan must seem like a walk in the figurative park.


*  It took me nearly a week to get it out, but my own review and comments are finally up, here.

I was a Friedman in Paris (Texas)

Alice Bachini-Smith has joined those who proclaim "Go Kinky!" in the race for Governor of Texas, encouraging the independent candidacy of singer-mystery writer Kinky Friedman. 

Kinky Friedman: 'Why the Hell Not?'Loyal visitors will recall that last October I noted that the Kinkster was gleaning support from our longtime reader, commenter and most favored Texan, Cowtown Pattie, and from the hardest working haijin in Schenectady,
David Giacalone (whose weblog formerly known as "f/k/a" has just begun to reemerge in its new manifestation as "the haibun pundit . . . . . . ," as David explains here).

I am at a safe remove from Texas politics -- which seems much more exotic than the current brand of California electoral fooferah portions of which I have been reporting at Declarations and Exclusions -- so I do myself no harm by lobbing my own foolish endorsement in the general direction of the Kinkster.  After all, Kinky's not the celebrity governor that I'll be stuck with if he prevails in November. 

And one cannot but feel affection for any candidate who engenders this kind of support:

    • How have I remained ignorant of this pinnacle of TrueWestern achievement?  A Pun-Off!  In Austin!  Perhaps I was assuming that everyone in Texas is as close-minded and contrapuntal as the Editor of the Express-News of San Antonio, who has instituted a ban on the deployment of puns in that paper's headlines.  (Thanks to David for sending that Language Log item along in an e-mail early last month.)
  • songs:illinois features a link to the mighty Mr. Mojo Nixon's reworking of his immortal paean "Elvis is Everywhere" as -- what else? -- "Kinky is Everywhere" [MP3 link].  How can any proud son or daughter of the Lone Star State resist an exhortation like this?

Friends: I love Kinky Friedman!
Kinky is wild, crazy and free
Kinky is a real Texas American nutjob
Kinky is truly independent
A poet, a libertine, a free spirit
A truth-speaker
The last Lone Star in a Sea of Mendacity
I'm talkin' 'bout Kinky -- Kinky -- Kinky .......

Mojo knows whereof he speaks: he heard it from the bats under the bridge.

  • Speaking of musical interludes, the campaign site also sports a spankin' new Kinkytoon campaign ad, "Save Your Vote for Kinky," featuring the likes of Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks, with an extended cameo by David Crockett and the toe-tappin' defenders of the Alamo.