Major Production, Minor Show

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The New York Sun

This year’s celebrity baby of the opera world is a rather misshapen and misbegotten waif named “Grendel,” which had its New York debut on Tuesday evening as a part of Lincoln Center Festival. Late for its own world premiere in Los Angeles this spring, “Grendel” has been running in place ever since trying to catch up.

Grendel may be au courant, but it has one overriding flaw: It is all sizzle and no steak.

Like a spoiled child demanding attention, the sets and costumes dominate. The opera is part of a disturbing trend, beginning in Europe in the 1980s, that emphasizes production at the expense of the music. With heavyweight Julie Taymor of “The Lion King” fame as the director, could it be otherwise?

In “Grendel,” she is quite simply the driving force, not only as director, but also as overseer of the superb costumes of Constance Hoffman, the busy choreography of Angelin Preljocaj, and the infamous set of George Tsypin, which was a lot less interesting when it was working properly. Additionally, Ms.Taymor co-designed the wonderful puppets with Michael Curry and co-authored the libretto with J.D. McClatchy, based on the book by John Gardner, not to be confused with the conductor John Eliot Gardiner.

But what are the odds that her significant other would be a great composer? The music of Elliot Goldenthal is immediately forgettable. It reminds me of the debate that will rage for all eternity about “Rigoletto” and “Don Carlo.” I firmly believe that “Rigoletto” is far the superior opera to “Don Carlo” because in the former, every note is necessary for the continuous dramatic and rhythmic flow, whereas the latter, depending as it does on big numbers, has as a consequence quite a bit of musical filler. Not that I am suggesting that Mr. Goldenthal’s art is on the same plane as Verdi’s, but rather that “Grendel” is essentially all filler.

A little march, a little waltz, a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants — the score of “Grendel” has everything and nothing, except the attention span of a flea. Maddeningly episodic and arbitrary, even the creative borrowings of Mr. Goldenthal — of which there are many — come from suspect composers. Do we really need a section inspired by Carl Orff? Even as movie music, the world from which Mr. Goldenthal apparently emerges, this is uninspired hackwork, more “Star Trek” than “Star Wars.”

All of this distracts from what was actually quite a good performance. Eric Owens performs yeoman service as the monster, speaking, singing, and shrieking his way through 2 1/2 hours of solid stagetime. His eloquent basso voice sounds much better in rhetorical enunciation than in straight cantillation, and he can certainly be forgiven for stretches of lower volumes when he sounds weary. Grendel, of course, is the monster from Beowulf, but in this iteration he is a depressive, neurotic existentialist with suicidal tendencies — Woody Allen with a much lower voice. Mr. Owens was competent at channeling this personality, although his occasional regressions into infantilism were more childish than childlike. Richard Croft was excellent as the Shaper, a bardic lyre player, and Raymond Aceto was interesting, albeit unresonant, as the enemy King Hrothgar.

The one star in the show turned out to be the one star of the show; Denyce Graves dazzled with her one scene as the dragon.The vocal range was decidedly of the contralto variety — Ewa Podles country in spots — and Ms. Graves was rich and burnished in her lower register. One problem with having someone like her in a production like this is that the other singers sound rather pale by contrast, but at least we could relish some excellent singing for about 15 minutes of this otherwise tedious evening. My only quibble with her performance was her rather awkward comic timing.

The Concert Chorale of New York was okay, if not remarkable, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was charmingly out of tune. The City Opera Orchestra did its typical fine job, with a conductor of distinction Steven Sloane from the American Composers Orchestra, in the pit. I was reminded that although Paul Wittgenstein was the premier musician in that famous family, it was brother Ludwig who remarked in his “Culture and Value” that “quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.”

July 13, 15, and 16 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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