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Old English Monsters in Town

It was a night of high/lowbrow on Tuesday, when Better Half and I attended the much-anticipated premiere of the Elliot Goldenthal/Julie Taymor opera, Grendel, after which we rushed home to watch the TiVo’d All-Star Game like a couple of rabid blue & orange body-painters.

I’m sure everyone’s had their fill of the game by now, but the opera is definitely something to report on. For ten years or so, The Lincoln Center Festival has been filling the role of a kind of summer BAM Next-Wave Festival on the Upper West Side, which is a situation I will never complain about. The one month each season when Lincoln Center apes BAM is just about the only time of the year when I prowl its gaping, cavernous halls.

The first Taymor piece I ever saw was the spectacular Lion King—I missed Juan Darién when it was up a few years before that. I have a vivid memory of a school chum describing the experience of watching Juan Darién, though, where he reportedly said to himself at intermission, “Wow, this is fantastic. She’s an absolute genius. And I could totally leave right now”. And that’s generally the consensus behind much of her work. Similar thoughts cropped up for me when we saw the gorgeous Robert Wilson-directed Peer Gynt at BAM (in Norweigen for goodness sakes) a couple months ago: “This is masterful!” I thought. “Brilliant! Do I really have to stay for all four hours?”

This piece, though, raises the bar, and from what I could tell, there was far less wristwatch-gazing happening for such a venture. In fact, the work is gorgeous. We got J.D. McClatchy’s tight/engaging libretto (and he’s proved himself before, with Tobias Picker’s Emmeline), great stuff in the story itself (based on the Beowulf-from-the-monster’s-perspective novel by John Gardner), terrific music from Goldenthal, fantastic performances from the cast and chorus, and the expected over-the-top Taymor spectacle, to boot. Great Performances, indeed … every singer was brilliant, especially Eric Owens, singing the title role—that guy deserves a special place in Performing Arts Heaven for all the singing and movement he does, nonstop, for 3 hours. You have to hand it to Ms. Taymor … somehow she can get opera singers to wear masks, fly in harnesses, and howl like wolves. This isn’t your everyday Merry Widow we’re talking about here, where the most difficult staging a soprano has to endure is singing a portion of her Act II aria while sitting down. Singing quite complicated stuff, while pouncing around in Constance Hoffman’s sumptuous, and often equally-complicated costumes (the bard-like “Shaper” was my favorite) is one thing. Singing complicated stuff wearing a head-to-toe “dragonette” costume while hanging suspended from the catwalk over an undulating dragon tail, well, that’s quite another. This monster is staged like nobody’s business, and the cast come off like champs.

The now-infamous set (designed by George Tsypin), much anticipated after the delay in LA when some mechanical bits didn’t work in tech and they had to delay the opening, was indeed, technically amazing. It opened in various ways, turned around, and did all kinds of nifty things (all of which worked flawlessly as far as I could tell) while generally looking wildly-expensive, but design-wise, it was a little bit of a letdown. It is, frankly, kind of ugly. Despite the gymnastics the thing pulled off, ultimately it’s kind of a big grey rock. The other set elements throughout the opera, however—the various objects and individual pieces brought out along the way—a funeral pyre, a marvelous tree-eating/road-making machine, a dragon head and tail—well, each one was more breathtaking than the next. Gorgeous pieces of the most complicated constructions you’ve ever seen on stage paraded out, all along with Michael Curry’s always-beautiful puppets, and all stunningly-lit by (my new favorite) Donald Holder. And when the staging is too complex for the singers to pull off, well, why not have dancers do it. And they did, undulating all over the space (performing quite beautiful choreography by Angelin Preljocaj) while Grendel hoots and howls solo from his perch on the big grey monster rock. In fact, this kind of thing is where Taymor shines as director. I would suspect that for about 3/4 of the opera, if you were looking at the vocal score, you’d see the orchestra playing away, and a single staff above: Grendel, singing his heart out for hours on end. Under another director, that could be more than a little dull. And yet, you’d never know it from looking at the stage. Grendel may be soliliquizing, but the dancers are going full-throttle in their wild costumes, the set is turning this way and that, the puppeteers are jumping about with their Curry Creations, and the lighting is darting across the scrim where the video projections frolic in front of it all.

I would imagine Taymor’s problem is that we now expect this kind of a visual feast, every time she shows up to work. I’m apologetic that I probably expected it myself, and I admit that’s just not fair. But I think the real short-shrift in these collaborative Taymor endeavors goes to Elliot Goldenthal. The guy is a terrific composer, a master craftsman in film and theater music, and yet, after Taymor and all the designers bowed and the audience is hooting and cheering and on their feet stamping with delight, Goldenthal comes out solo for his bow, and you can kind of feel the audience thinking, “Wait, who is that, now?” It’s an opera for Christmas-sake, with, you know, music, and yet it is still very much Taymor’s show.

And still, it’s the best Goldenthal score I’ve heard, perhaps ever. Always engaging, lyrical, and wildly colorful—his lines make complete dramatic sense, and I was stunned with how well it all worked musically. I’ve enjoyed his film scores very much, some more than others, but when his offerings for the concert hall have come up, the one I remember, Fire Water Paper, impressed very little on me when I heard the premiere years ago. So I was thrilled to like this score as much as I did. It’s true that there’s not much of a singular voice in his music (one hears quite a bit of Corigliano in there, and quite a bit more of John Adams), but it’s all synthesized together with expertise and creativity.

I was most impressed with some excellent (musical, dramatic, and staging) decisions the creative team made along the way—especially the well-conceived occasional use of Old English, the idea of the Dragonettes (a trio of women representing the tip of The Dragon’s tail), the employment of Grendel’s “Shadows” (a trio of men, Grendel’s inner demons/voices), and the excellent solution of singing Beowulf as a chanting male chorus. As a whole, it all dramatically worked about as well as you can hope. Honestly, only once, maybe twice, did I shift in my seat thinking, mmm, perhaps this scene could be cut a bit. But that happens with everything. Let’s be honest … every piece of performing art, unless you made it yourself, is a little too long. I would guess it’s been like that since barely-upright-people started banging on rocks ’cause it sounded cool. (Great performance, Ugghuh! Perhaps there were a few too many boulder-smashes?)

Now that these paragraphs are down, I will allow myself to see the Times review, out this morning. In fact, I link to it without yet reading it, so I do hope this venture got some praise—I think it deserves it. Of course, it’s not a perfect piece, but Lordy, it does stuff. Sometimes that “stuff” you do doesn’t work all that well, but at least you tried something. Nothing makes me more crazy than a massive venture which never remotely tries to do, frankly, anything at all. This Grendel, though, is a big mammoth of a thing, grandly conceived and expertly executed, stuff and all. Counts for a lot for me personally, so, bugger all the reviews. Including this one.

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