A Tradition Upheld

If life followed the standard operatic scenario, the Grendel that ensued on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage last week — after the chaos that delayed its opening, cost the L.A. Opera some $300,000 in added expenses on top of the $2.8 million of the original production, and occasioned the flow of perspiration both at the Music Center and at New York’s Lincoln Center (where the work is to be the diadem of next month’s Festival) — should end up as superb musical drama worthy of the majestic complexities of the George Tsypin stage set and the directorial acumen of Julie Taymor, known to have tamed Lion Kings, Flying Dutchmen and Queens of the Night. It does not.

It joins, instead, the gloomy annals of operatic world premieres — four so far — perpetrated by the local forces under the grand delusion that the future of large-scale opera lies in cramming poor music into old outlines. (Don’t worry; the Metropolitan Opera’s record is just as bad.) In the case of the drearily gesturesome Kullervo and the hopelessly second-rate Fantastic Mr. Fox and Nicolas and Alexandra, these were at least the work of operatic professionals. Grendel, however, is the first venture into opera of Elliot Goldenthal, after a well-oiled career in film scoring. Though his musical vocabulary is the kind that goes down well in patriotic oratorios commissioned by suburban philharmonic societies, he is now faced with the matter of creating personalities on the stage in the process of growth. As far as I can tell, after two hearings of his maiden attempt and reams of his orotund proclamations live and in print, I detect no idea in his work of how to join music to character.

He has taken the wonderful Grendel concept, which novelist John Gardner distilled out of the Beowulf epic and endowed with a centuries-spanning personality, and reduced him to growls and howls (which Eric Owens, made up to look like a belligerent potato, delivers far better than they deserve). Librettist J.D. McClatchy, who seems to have cornered the literature-into-libretto market lately (Our Town, Miss Lonelyhearts and Lorin Maazel’s much-clobbered 1984), collaborated with Taymor on the text, which does not confine its violence to the title character, but wanders arrogantly over the subtly lit terrain of Gardner’s fantastic text, which is in its pristine form a delightful read.

The all-knowing (if deliciously cynical) Dragon, for example, who delivers to the young Grendel the wisdom that will enable him to winnow out the matters of true importance in his life, has via Taymor-McClatchy morphed into a kind of Dietrich-plus-Erda vamp. Operatic exigencies, I suppose, demand a woman’s voice somewhere before the end of Act 1, but all this distortion proves is the willingness of today’s authors to cast aside yesterday’s integrity, and so it goes. Gardner’s splendid Grendel has, therefore, sadly metamorphosed into artistic grotesquery heaped upon dramatic dishonesty. None of the L.A. Opera’s former fiascoes went that far.

Oh yes, there is that mighty roar by Eric Owens in the title role, truly a spectacular howl for those who seek that manner of operatic thrill. As the Dragon, Denyce Graves manages an impressive vocal range; Laura Claycomb, that marvelous Zerbinetta of two seasons ago, coats her tiny assignment as Queen Wealtheow in tones of pure silver. Come to think of it, I can’t remember an opera, new or old, in which so many excellent singers have been squandered in so many tiny roles. Can it be that Mr. Goldenthal is afraid of singers? The best performance in Grendel is by Desmond Richardson, the Beowulf, who comes to end Grendel’s lifetime of depredations. He dances terrifically and doesn’t sing a note. (Nor does the stageful of clever puppets, of course, without which it wouldn’t be a Taymor show.)

And then there is that set: Tsypin’s monster of a wall, moving this way and that, spectacularly clanking up, down and sidewise, its 26 computers finally brought into sync to afford Owens and a couple of his pals something to climb up and down upon as their imprecations rock the Chandler’s night air (plus two matinees) — shiny on one side to stand for a world under ice, forested on the other to stand for . . . well, forests. At the end of one scene, Mr. Owens is asked to deliver a curtain line that is unique in the annals of opera lyrics, and may be equally so in the annals of instant criticism. The line is “bullshit.”

Mama Knows Best

On the previous night, the company’s La Traviata began not with the familiar party scene but out on the sidewalk under a solitary streetlamp, with streetwalkers plying their usual trade — this during the haunting melancholy of Verdi’s overture. Violetta then arrives on the arm of her swain-of-the-evening, in a snazzy town car — Duesenberg, or some such. Everybody goes inside, which means that the car must make its exit through the ballroom, but never mind. By then you’ve guessed that this is the stagecraft of Mama Domingo, patroness saint of the opera-plot rewrite, and you’d be right.

There isn’t as much wrong with Marta Domingo’s Traviata as with some of her past desecrations (remember La Rondine?), and the general squalor of her production, of which she is both director and designer, is offset by the general excellence of the singing and of the music itself. Her stage sets seem to consist of objects simply dropped at various places: a Deco table and chairs at midstage against some singularly ugly trees for Act 2, a bed downstage in the final scene with a blanket that makes it look as if Violetta is lying in soapsuds. Overall, however, I see no point in any attempt to move this intensely 1850s work, remarkable in its day as an opera set in its own time, out of that time. Every wisp of fragrance in the music, every current in the moral tone of its story, belongs where Verdi — and his inspiring playwright, Alexandre Dumas — set it, and an Art Deco Traviata is just willfully and groundlessly false.

But there are the Violetta of Elizabeth Futral, her pure coloratura tinged with a splendid sense of urgency; the Alfredo of Joseph Calleja, a remarkably convincing dramatic tenor new to these ears; and the Papa Germont of Dwayne Croft, forthright and sympathetic. John Fiore’s musical leadership strikes me more as tidy than inspired, but a strong tidying hand, considering the onstage mess, isn’t such a bad idea.

LA Weekly