George Tsypin’s set for Grendel (which worked perfectly on the opera’s opening night in the Lincoln Center Festival, despite its overpublicized L.A. breakdown) is a giant, jagged rock wall, the central chunk of which lowers like a Murphy bed to make an upper stage, leaving a large gaping hole in the middle of the wall. Tsypin may have hit unconsciously on the new opera’s basic problem: Musically, dramatically, and theatrically, it has no center. Starting from John Gardner’s novel of the same name, which tells the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the titular monster, who annually depredates King Hrothgar’s court till a hero comes who can slay him, the libretto, by director Julie Taymor and poet J.D. McClatchy, provides a marathon central role—appropriately monstrous in its musical demands—for the titular beast, manfully portrayed by Eric Owens, but no central drama. Often drawing directly from the novel’s stream of internal monologue, the librettists try to make a huge spectacle out of what’s basically self-recrimination and soul-searching. They might have done better to cast the work as a half-evening solo cantata.
Marshaling large orchestral and choral forces, plus all his vast film-honed skill at instrumental coloring in a wide range of musical vocabularies, composer Elliot Goldenthal seems to be trying every mode of musical illustration available, providing dozens of beautiful passages but never seeming to find a central idiom for the work: Like his hero, his talent never seems fully at home anywhere. Julie Taymor’s production, similarly, is in the try-everything mode: puppets, toy-theater models, flying, projections, campy pop-culture allusions, dance and mime passages. But the staging never seems certain who anybody is or what they want. Partly, the problem begins with Gardner’s novel, essentially a static psychological study of an alienated sensibility (to which one gathers that the alcoholically self-destructive Gardner felt a great kinship). Much of the libretto has a painfully prosy sound, which Goldenthal’s fondness for fixating on the drabbest lines when writing in minimalist-repetitive mode doesn’t improve, despite a lot of sumptuous singing under Steven Sloane’s resourceful baton. Laura Claycomb as Hrothgar’s queen, Richard Croft as a bardic figure called the Shaper, David Gagnon as Grendel’s dream avatar, and Denyce Graves, saddled with a lot of laboriously unfunny gabble as a blasé dragon, all sounded first-rate. Owens, in a role that inconsiderately requires the grace of Don Giovanni, the stamina of Siegfried, and the passion of Boris Godunov, used his stentorian bass to powerful effect.