Thursday, June 22, 2006

It turns out it's Man. [scary dramatic music] - Grendel at LA Opera

One of the main problems that I have with most modern operas is that they seem to be written so specifically to one particular voice or are too closely interwoven with a particular set design. (The other problem I have with them is that they almost always suck.) The voice problem really isn't anything new, of course; most of the great composers wrote roles especially for certain singers, and in the intervening years other singers have always been able to take over the roles with success. The set design problem is somewhat more difficult; sets can only last about forty or fifty years before they have to be retired. With all the gizmometers attached to the set for Elliot Goldenthal's new opera Grendel, I'd say the shelf-life is even shorter. But the sets, direction, puppets, and costumes are all so pivotal to the opera's success that it will be very hard, maybe even impossible, to stage Grendel any other way. Sure, Die Zauberflöte and Giulio Cesare,, have survived over two hundred years of set changes and director changes, but those operas, like all great operas, are known and loved for their music, not for their costumes or computerized thingamajiggers. Grendel doesn't have the same kind of cushion; in spite of the fantastic cast, most of it would've fallen flat without all the bells and whistles of Taymor's production.

As much as it galls me to admit it, I enjoyed Grendel. The music, for the most part, was intensely bland, but there were moments of great beauty, such as The Shaper's songs and Queen Wealtheow's aria. Oddly enough, those moments never belonged to Grendel himself, but he's a monster so maybe he doesn't deserve beautiful music. Goldenthal is a soundtrack composer, so I guess when he decided to write an opera, he thought he had to be serious and look back on traditional and all that. In his opinion, that obviously means throwing the various tics of past composers into a hat and drawing a few of them out. The result was like the retarded chicken scrawls of the love-child of a lobotomized Stravinsky and John Williams. Grendel has the random brass-heavy squawks of Stravinsky (I hate that tic in particular in everybody except Stravinsky; it just sounds like the instruments are randomly playing in the ugliest manner possible), the sustained chords that I think I recognize from Pelléas et Mélisande but that probably are more Wagnerian in origin; I even recognized some of that butt-monkey John Adams's influence.

The libretto also isn't doing the opera any favors. Most of it is lifted directly from the source material--John Gardner's novel Grendel--but what works well in a novel doesn't necessarily work well on the opera stage. As a result, Grendel is a very talky opera--there are many scenes where Grendel is info-dumping while dancers come out and flail around the stage a bit. This works better in some parts than in others. For example, the scene in which Grendel is reminiscing about his childhood and the action on stage acts out what he is describing--an encounter with human children in which Grendel is tormented and finally tears a child's arm off (nice parallel with Grendel's own death there), and Grendel's first showdown with Hrothgar--works because it's in more of a flashback type of structure. The talkiness is exacerbated by the seemingly pointless repeats. The Dragon repeats a great deal in her monologue, to no particular effect, and Grendel would occasionally indulge in one-person rounds. The part where he's singing "Talking, always talking," and repeating words (and it's a bit [unintentionally?] meta) works, but sometimes the "interrupt myself mid-line and start over" thing was just annoying and seemed like a ploy to buy more time for Taymor's puppets and Goldenthal's underwhelming music.

Another problem is that Taymor and J.D. McClatchy (the co-librettists) clearly love the novel Grendel and so couldn't bear to leave anything out, any philosophical stone unturned. Operas are like movies in that if you try to cram too much philosophical reflections (well, if you do it hamfistedly anyway) in, you're going to end up with a lot of rambling. It's usually necessary to sacrifice a few of the themes to make the others that much stronger. The novel apparently explores many different philosophies, from sophism to nihilism, and takes a potshot at Sartre in the form of the Dragon, but it also studies the rise of the city-state and human civilization and technology or organized religion. Above all, there's the "eternal struggle between order and chaos...", as J.D. McClatchy put it. Instead of narrowing this down to one or two points that worked together, or weaving them together in a seamless way, Taymor and McClatchy separated most of them into discrete scenes, which meant that most of them were dropped. Maybe it's that way in the novel, but since they couldn't be explored in the same depth as they would've been in writing, in the opera, it was just glaring. At least all the philosophical stuff in the libretto gave the audience at the pre-opera lecture something to laugh about (which they did loudly, to prove to everyone else that they got the joke; I find it an odd contrast that during the opera, the cuss words got the biggest laughs. In the dark, you're safe to revert to a twelve year-old.)

Usually I loathe Julie Taymor and think that she's horribly overrated (I hate hearing people practically piss themselves when they find out that something is a Julie Taymor production. It doesn't take a genius to stick ships on women's heads for The Flying Dutchman, it takes a douchebag). Also, I haven't completely forgiven her for that creepy-ass animatronic lion cub that they used to show in the commercials for the Lion King musical, twitching away like a murdered Joe Pesci-bot. She did a good job with Grendel, creepy puppets and all. The creatures, including Grendel's saggy-breasted, tree-branch-armed mum, looked like a cross between darker Jim Henson stuff and the sculptures that come to life at the end of Beetlejuice. The least successful puppets were the tiny armed man dolls that attacked Grendel. I know they were trying to show how huge Grendel is, but it just looked kind of ridiculous. When Grendel kidnapped Queen Wealtheow, I told myself that I was going to lose my shit if he ended up holding a redheaded Barbie doll in his hand to represent her. My shit was almost lost, because he did have a redheaded poppet kind of thing, which he manipulated while stagehands dressed all in black put poor Laura Claycomb in the manual version of stirrups. The size difference was handled quite well overall, with a large puppet Grendel attacking the King's bedchamber, while Eric Owens (Grendel) did a "There's someone outside my window" dance next to the golden model of the meadhall. Hm, that didn't sound very good really, but it worked. The computerized wall that caused all the problems with the premiere was OK. The same effect could've been achieved with manpower and would've saved everyone a lot of headaches. In the opening scene, it looked a little too much like the interior of the Matterhorn for my tastes.

It wouldn't be an LA Opera production without a little lame dancing, especially of the simulated sex variety. It was predictably pointless, retarded, and gross. The "battle" dancing was also somewhat obnoxious, and I kept wishing that the female dancers' long, ratty hair extensions would catch on fire so they'd just go away. But at least it wasn't Peggy Hickey. The most important piece of the dancing in the opera, and the most creative one, was the solo dance by Desmond Richardson, who played Beowulf. It was interesting that the "hero" of the original tale should be a mute role, but it worked very well. The dance itself was a bit lackluster; he seemed to be jumping like a diver on a springboard, but Richardson has an amazing body and he was enjoying his Speedo freedom... his "Speedom", if you will.

Not even Taymor's puppet-mastery could've saved the opera without the efforts of the fantastic cast. Eric Owens as Grendel was phenomenal in both his singing and his acting. His dark bass-baritone voice had enough warmth in it to give it a touch of humanity, and it was flexible enough to rise up into a passable falsetto. His music wasn't always very interesting, but Owens still sold the long, philosophical rambling parts very well. He wasn't necessarily the most sympathethic character ever, but that's part of the story--Grendel is a monster, supposedly from the seed of Cain. He exists to be hated, to allow men to define themselves by their hatred of him. At the beginning of the opera, Grendel sings of his disdain for the animals around him who are driven by mindless primordial urges (and Julie Taymor, I really didn't need to see a mechanical ram thing dry-hump the air. Really.), yet he is motivated by the same sort of mindless malevolence. It's true that he hates Hrothgar because Hrothgar threw a battle-axe at him when they were both children, but if that's the sole motivation, why doesn't he just kill Hrothgar? At the same time, Grendel also is disgusted by mankind and their rituals, their petty fighting, and their destruction of the natural world; he isn't a beast and he isn't a man--he's the only one of his kind, completely alone.

What I didn't realize before seeing the opera is that Gardner's Grendel is only supposed to be about twelve years old (there were 12 chapters in the book, 12 scenes in the opera, and they're both supposed to each have a reference to a sign of the zodiac in them. Hopefully, the book is more successful with the zodiac thingy than the opera was.), so like any good adolescent boy, he's interested in violence, sex, and music. Unfortunately, the last two often lead to the first. When Grendel overhears the music of the Shaper, he is entranced...until he realizes that the Shaper is using that music to convince the Danes of what a terrible, twisted menace Grendel is. This leads Grendel to visit the Dragon and eventually give in fully to his monstritis. Grendel's first experience with sex comes when he sees the arrival of the beautiful Queen Wealtheow. She is beautiful and pure, until he spies on her giving his enemy King Hrothgar the most intimate lap-dance ever. During that scene, Hrothgar and Grendel sang a dual love duet opposite Wealtheow, their bass-baritone voices mirroring one another's, though Grendel was singing in the modern English that only he spoke (with some exceptions) while Hrothgar sang in Old English. Grendel later dreams of being rejected by her and then attacks the castle, tearing her out of her bed, holding her legs open, and singing about "burning the ugly little hole between her legs." It's a horrifyingly misogynistic image, but it somehow rings true. I think children are often somewhat shocked and disgusted by sex when they first encounter it. (Or is that just me? And my sister? OK, I'm fucked up.) Anyway, Owens somehow managed to capture the evil of Grendel while still tempering it with vulnerability, sadness, fear, and frustration. He even handled the comic scenes well. It's a far cry from the last role that Owens debuted--the pointlessly comedic General Groves in Doctor Atomic who spent most of the opera talking about how many calories there are in chocolate cake. Honestly, Peter Sellars, if I wanted to learn about points, I'd go to a fucking Weight Watchers meeting.

In addition to main Grendel, there were three "shadow Grendels", who were his only company. They looked a bit like the Blue Man Group after falling into a mud puddle. It was a nice tip of the hat to operatic tradition to make the tenor shadow Grendel be the one romancing Queen Wealtheow in Grendel's dream. The other two, the baritone and the bass, seemed to egg Grendel on with his violence. At the end, when Grendel is facing death, the shadow Grendels dropped away one by one until finally he was really and truly alone, just like everyone is when they die. The idea of a choral monologue was interesting, but too often it just fell into the rounds that Grendel was already doing himself.

Richard Croft was wonderful as the Shaper, the bard/propagandist...kind of like James Carville in a dress with a harp stuck to him. Actually, since the Shaper's message was "Kill the hideous monster because he's ugly and different!", sweetened with a Biblical excuse, he was probably more like a wandering minstrel version of Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly. In a dress. With eyeliner. I'll let that retina-scalding image sink in for a while. Anyway, Croft's voice first sounded to me like yet another head that had budded from the Toby Rolfe Bostridge hydra, but really Croft's voice has a strangeness to it, a wildness, that fit the Old English perfectly. It was easy to understand why the Shaper's song so easily enthralled Grendel. Grendel sees through the bullshit that the Shaper is peddling to the Scyldings (take notice, red state America! If a son of Cain can do it, so can you!), which further embitters him and makes him question what he really is -- if he was born to be evil, why bother trying to be good?

That questioning sends Grendel to the Dragon for answers, but unfortunately, she/he has none. The Dragon scene was at once amazing and tedious. The stage design was great--a giant dragon head whose tongue rolls out to reveal Denyce Graves and a restless, twitching tail with three "Dragonettes" (coloratura soprano backup singers) on the end of it. I usually dislike Graves's voice, but for the Dragon, it really worked. Goldenthal wanted the Dragon to be androgynous, to start out almost in a baritone register and slowly rise up to meet her soprano accompanists. Graves can definitely handle those low notes, even if they're not particularly attractive (they don't have a baritone's warm strength, and the slight mezzo coo in her voice made them just female enough to be unsettling), but she tends to be shrill on the highs. The Dragon has a long, often repetitive monologue about seeing all of time at once, the past, the present, the future, how everything is dust at the end, blah, blah, blah. Tell it to Stephen Hawking. The Dragon's suggestion for Grendel? "Hoard some gold (but not my gold) and sit on it." The end. Grab what you can get and spend the rest of your life enjoying it, because nothing else means anything. Take that, Sartre! I guess. It was a decent scene in all, because it provides the catalyst for Grendel's more violent attacks on Heorot, but it went on a bit too long with all the repetition. It was somewhat masturbatory on Goldenthal and Taymor's parts. Hee. "Parts."

Raymond Aceto sang well as King Hrothgar, though apart from the Shaper, the human characters in the opera don't have much to do. They're cardboard, and it's impossible to care much about them. Laura Claycomb's only job as Queen Wealtheow was to be the aural embodiment of pure beauty, and she was that. Her voice was as shimmering and silvery as the gown she wore, and like Richard Croft, I felt her voice fit well with the Old English words. Far from being a guttural language, it actually seemed quite melodic, and was at once familiar and strange. Unferth (Jay Hunter Morris) was there purely for comedy, though he did make a good foil for Beowulf. Unferth was a man of talk and no action, whereas Beowulf was a man of all action and no talk. The little meta touches in his scene annoyed me a bit. I just recoil in general when people in operas or plays talk to the audience though. Kyle Hampson as the child Grendel and the boy Shaper varied between touching and inaudible. The chorus was strong, but they were all dressed like Lord and Lady Whiteadder from that Blackadder episode with the turnip that looks like a thingy.

While I was watching Grendel, I began thinking about Thomas Ades's The Tempest, and wondering how the two compared to one another. Caliban and Grendel are certainly of a kind, and just as Goldenthal, Taymor, and McClatchy made Grendel somewhat sympathetic, so did Thomas Ades make Caliban pitiable by giving him beautiful music to sing. The major difference is, when it comes right down to it, that The Tempest could be restaged and redirected and still be good. It will suffer hugely without Cyndia Sieden as Ariel (since I really don't know if there's another person alive who's capable of doing what she does) and Simon Keenlyside as Prospero (I'm cringing already at the thought of Rodney "Rod" Gilfry assuming the role in Santa Fe this summer), but it's not dependent on the Pink Floydesque laser light shows of the original production. This is not the case with Grendel, however. It might be able to work without Eric Owens, but without the Taymor staging, it will flounder. As someone said in an LA Times letter to the editor about Grendel, you can't leave the theatre humming the scenery. No matter how much Taymor, Wilson, Freyer, Bieito, and their ilk would like to deny it, opera is about the music.

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