[updated through 6/22/06]
June 09, 2006
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.
- Los Angeles Opera's own site has rehearsal video (in which can be heard excerpts from the score) and, of course, ticket information.
- 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.]
- On her blog House To Half, Keturah Stickann gives a somewhat more positive report after attending last Saturday afternoon's preview performance:
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  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!
- 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:
- 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?
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.
- [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.
Thanks for the links! And if it's any consolation, my seats were nowhere near close enough to accurately discern the true intensity of the chorus's features. However, from my perch they all seemed to be doing admirable jobs in an interesting, imperfect production.
Posted by: Kyle | June 13, 2006 at 01:08 PM