Mere dollars couldn’t have bankrolled the wave of publicity that rolled “Grendel” into its sold-out performance to round out the Los Angeles Opera’s 20th season last week. A number of elements pumped that publicity: a $2.8-million production spearheaded by Julie (“Lion King”) Taymor for starters and the first opera score by her husband, Oscar-winner Elliot Goldenthal, followed by disaster when George Tsypin’s stage set wouldn’t operate properly. Any God-fearing operatic scenario would crown this sequence of events with the sunlit blaze of a happy ending, but, alas, this overwrought bundle of misspent energy and misguided dramatic gesture doesn’t do the trick.
Whatever lyrical strength Goldenthal has shown in his film scores — “Frida,” which is held together nicely by atmosphere and color — his composer’s pen is adrift in a work where characters await definition through music, and are offered none. A kind of ill-tempered sameness pervades the three hours.
The drama demands more. It was a stroke of genius when, in 1971, author John Gardner drew from the epic “Beowulf” the notion to write a book about the kaleidoscopic character of the monstrous Grendel, descendant of Cain, symbol of everything we lump under the “Dark Side.” Librettist J. D. McClatchy — whose recent text for Lowell Liebermann’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” at Juilliard elevates him to a place of honor along guardians of lost causes — has turned out a serviceable text; it’s the music that fails.
The irony is that Gardner’s short, epigrammatic novel, with the wonderful wisdom of its dragon encounter midway, is a grand literary gambit that cries for music. Aside from creating the obvious virtuoso workout for a bass-baritone Grendel (Eric Owens) and an embarrassingly high-camp Dragon that misuses Denyce Graves, there isn’t a vocal line to linger in the memory.
It actually comes as a relief that the Beowulf character, who arrives at the end to deal the monster his overdue comeuppance, is a dancer (Desmond Richardson) rather than a singer. Goldenthal is simply no match for the splendid drama that might have come out of the book of Grendel, and might have spread grandly across the huge Tsypin set that, as it now happens, simply dwarfs whatever takes place on it.
With a success rate not unlike the Metropolitan Opera, L.A. Opera has again slipped in an attempt to introduce genuine contemporary impulse into the hidebound operatic repertory.
After its L.A. run the opera will be performed July 11, 13, 15 and 16 as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.