L.A. Opera Triumphs

Review by Willard Manus

What a finish to Los Angeles Opera's 2005\06 season! First there was Marta Domingo's updated and glitzy version of Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, which featured the vivacious, thrilling young soprano, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Domingo transposed the demi-mondaine world of the 1850s to the 1920s, turning Verdi's elegant courtesans into Jazz Age flappers. Domingo, who also designed TRAVIATA, turned the opera into a visual spectacle: gypsies in gold tights (and helmets) dancing exuberantly, paisely gardens under a paisley moon, Violetta dying in Act III while swooning on a purplish poof that resembled a giant sponge. And so on.

Lost in all the glitter was the poignancy of Violetta's death from impoverishment and betrayal. The production became not only inappropriate to the story, but overwhelmed it. Still, Futral sang magnificently, as did Dwayne Croft as Germont, the father of Alfredo, the young nobleman who abandons Violetta for economic reasons. Alredo was well sung by Joseph Calleja, but his acting is on the wooden side and spoiled the chemistry between the two lovers.

Still, Verdi's magnifficent music and arias managed to enthrall, as always. John Fiore conducted strongly as well.

Domingo's production was overshadowed by the excitement generated by the world premiere of GRENDEL--TRANSCENDENCE OF THE GREAT BIG BAD, the new opera by Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal. Based on the poem Beowulf and John Gardner's retelling of the epic (from the monster's POV)--with libretto help from J.D. McClatchey, GRENDEL was given a magnificent, memorable production by L.A. Opera and its partner in the project, Lincoln Center Festival.

A huge, Stonehenge-like slab with a hole at its center dominates the stage. Designed by George Tsypin, the computer-driven, 28-foot-high, 20-ton construct uses 28 individually operated motors to move up, down and sideways at a variety of speeds, with a dozen-odd performers crawling around on it. Helping to fill the stage and bewitch the eye are sound and light effects (Karin Fong), puppets (Taymor & Michael Curry), high-flying dancers (Preljocaj), a towering dragon on whose lolling red tongue, lies mezzo Denyce Graves in high-camp splendor, singing a cynical ditty about man and his follies.

Bass Eric Owens is Grendel, the stumpy ogre who, despite all the blood he has spilled in his ruthless quest for power and world-domination, lays bare a soul desperate for love and transcendece. He's an evildoer with a heart of gold-plate. Owens has an incredibly challenging role--he's on stage for most of the opera, singing for nearly three hours--but he turns the challenge into a triumph.

Goldenthal's music is a pastiche of old and new symphonic riffs, snatches of pop, blaring percussion, lyrical passages for harp and woodwinds. The text is also a mish-mosh of English, Anglo-Saxon and nonsense verse. Amid all the sound and fury, the dazzling stage effects, Owens and the other singers, notably Graves, Richard Croft (as the troubador who seduces Grendel), Jay Hunter Morris, Laura Claycomb, Kyle Hampson (as the boy Grendel) and Charles Robert Austin (as King Hrothgar) sing valiantly and lustily.

GRENDEL probably succeeds more as spectacle than opera, but it will be long remembered if only because Los Angeles has never seen anything like it. (Visit laopera.com)