Monster in a Box

Photo: Stephanie Berger/Courtesy of Lincoln Center

A great many hands helped bring Grendel to this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, so it was generous of all concerned to let the composer, Elliot Goldenthal, represent the entire creative team in a solo bow at the end of the second performance. Or maybe it was just force of habit—opera, after all, is still generally considered a musically driven form in which the basic tone, mood, and direction of the whole piece are determined by the composer. That said, the score of Grendel strikes me as the least distinctive ingredient of this monster opera.

Of course, there’s plenty to look at in Julie Taymor’s production, and the text, by Taymor and the poet J. D. McClatchy, catches much of the wry flavor of the 1971 novella by John Gardner. Grendel, you will recall, is the ultimate outsider, a hideous but thoughtful ogre with a keen sense of paradox, a taste for art, an overactive libido, and a frighteningly human command of devious strategies as he terrorizes the ancient kingdom of the Danish monarch Hrothgar and finally meets his death at the hands of the hero Beowulf. In the end, though, you have to love a monster who hurls these final words at the audience as he falls into the abyss: “Grendel’s had an accident—so may you all!”

All this mythology is catnip to Taymor, who has been working out the details of her Grendel scenario and visual concept for two decades while bringing onboard an army of collaborators. Chief among them is set designer George Tsypin, whose eighteen-ton, 48-foot, $1 million rotating wall—the temperamental creature that bollixed up the production for a couple of weeks in L.A.—dominates the stage and creates a variety of theatrical spaces, a powerful symbol, says Taymor, of Grendel’s tragic isolation and lonely search for existential relevance. Beyond that, the stage is constantly animated by Taymor’s trademark puppetry, flying figures, exotic epic creatures, and fantastically deformed grotesques, including a languidly philosophical female dragon with a trio of “dragonettes” perched on her tail. If sheer eye-popping spectacle now defines what a new opera should be all about, then Grendel measures up handily.

What a pity that the music gets in the way and finally defeats the project. Goldenthal may be a wonderful composer of atmospheric film scores (Frida, Batman Forever, and many more), but that hardly guarantees success at opera—Bernard Herrmann, after all, was a legendary master of movie music whose only opera, Wuthering Heights, is unmemorable. The score of Grendel is a stupefying stylistic mishmash, a compendium of notable composers who parade past us one by one. Stravinsky, Strauss, Britten, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Respighi pop up among dozens of others, and there’s a startling guest appearance in Act One by Philip Glass, who might just consider asking for royalties. Goldenthal skillfully digests all his influences, but he never finds a voice of his own, and hardly one note strikes the ear as original or genuinely inventive. The secondhand music eventually casts a pall over the whole opera, which in the end emerges as a cold, empty, passionless affair despite all the pageantry.

By the time Grendel arrived at the State Theater, all the technical glitches that postponed the premiere in L.A. last month had been ironed out, and everyone involved seemed in command of the work’s complexities. Eric Owens’s sturdy bass-baritone ranged tirelessly over the title role’s awkwardly written vocal lines, while Laura Claycomb (Queen Wealtheow), Denyce Graves (the Dragon), and Richard Croft (the Shaper) performed their duties efficiently under conductor Steven Sloane’s firm musical direction. In vain. I can’t see much of a future for Grendel, except perhaps as a straight-to-DVD release for devoted Julie Taymor fans.

Libretto by Julie Taymor and J. D. McClatchy; music by Elliot Goldenthal. Lincoln Center Festival. July 11 to 16.

Monster in a Box