Two Tuesdays ago, I attended the NY premiere of the opera "Grendel." Elliot Goldenthal was the composer, and his partner Julie Taymor (seemingly most well-known for Broadway's musical "The Lion King" and for directing Titus and Frida and for her acclaimed production of Die Zauberflöte at the Met last year...my review of that here) was director, co-librettist, and puppet designer. George Tsypin, who collaborated with Taymor on Die Zauberflöte, reunited with her as set designer.
This was an adaptation of the novel by John Gardner that retells the story of Beowulf from the monster Grendel's perspective. I've not read the novel, but if the Goldenthal-Taymor adaptation was faithful, then both transform Grendel from a mindless beast into a Hamlet-esque brooder, an introverted philosopher wearied by the weight of his own thoughts. As with the revisionist musical Wicked, the opera traces his monstrous soul to mistreatment at the hands of cruel children in his youth because of his physical appearance.
I enjoy opera, but most are a bit long for me. It would be a lie to say I've survived all three hours of any German opera without my eyes and ears and mind wandering around the theater more than a few times. "Grendel," an English (of the new and Old variety) opera, is no exception, but a few things helped to focus my attention. Taymor/Tsypin always provide a dazzling palette for the eyes, and by the oohs and aahs of the opening night crowd, that might be enough in and of itself to earn a checkmark. Tsypin's main contribution is a gigantic, rotating wall with a pivoting cutout in the center that swings back and forth like a drawbridge. Taymor's puppets include those with her trademark geometric grandeur, including a massive dragon head. Constance Hoffman's costumes supply a pleasing contrast to the puppets, some of the other monsters in Grendel's cave looking like some first grader's terrifying crayon scrawls come to life.
I enjoy me some Taymor puppets dancing around Tsypin sets as much as the next guy, but the music is what stays with you. Goldenthal is most known to me for his film score work, and "Grendel" reminded me at moments of a Stravinsky-influenced film score. Much of the vocal line given to Grendel (hard-working bass Eric Owens, looking from my cheap seats like a man in a slate-colored body cast) reverberated past me, literally and figuratively, and I had to read the notes to the opera to catch all the nuances of the story.
At times, the opera includes a bit of welcome post-modern humor. I recall one scene, or perhaps it was the first act, ending with Grendel shouting, "Bullshit!" His first line upon appearing on stage: "And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war."
At the opera's conclusion, the crowd gave an enthusiastic ovation, and the snippets of conversation I heard in the mass exodus all concerned Taymor's puppets, Hoffman's costumes, and Tsypin's monolithic wall.
"Just beautiful, wasn't it?"
"Oh, it was just so gorgeous. Just wonderful to look at."
I won't go so far as to refer to "Grendel" as "The Lion King" for adults or with loftier aspirations, but sometimes I think you could set Taymor puppets on a Tsypin set to music from a CD and people would turn out eagerly, so visually starved are opera fans.
One benefit of attending opera (and theater) is that it's one of the few remaining social outings that makes me feel young, the average age of the audience at the Met skewing into another generation. One of the countless reasons I'm so depressed to be leaving NYC is that the Met's upcoming season includes more than one show I'd love to see: Anthony Minghella's interpretation of "Madame Butterfly," Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" starring Placido Domingo (with help on the libretto from novelist Ha Jin and some production assistance from Zhang Yimou), and Franco Zeffirelli's production of "La Boheme."