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Los Angeles Opera Comes of Age With a Spectacular Grendel
by Mort Levine

The opportunity to take a long weekend in Southern California in mid-June to blanket in two of the most unusual opera offerings in years was too good to skip.

The highlight of the Ojai Festival, inland from Santa Barbara, this year was the concert staging of Ainadamar, a wrenching retelling of an incident from the Spanish civil war back in 1936. Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov was present to describe his motivation at a symposium the afternoon prior to the performance. The outdoor venue was excellent except for having the supertitles typeface too small for most of the audience. This is a revised score since the opera´s premiere at Santa Fe a couple of years back.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw sang the lead role of Margarita Xirgu with great skill and passion. Contralto Kelly O´Conner brought the pantsrole of Federico Lorca, the fated playwright, to a heightened dramatic pitch. Both were in the original production. Robert Spano´s Atlanta Symphony and Chorus provided a rich tapestry of Hispanic and Flamenco music.

Two nights later at the downtown LA Music Center, it was time for an eagerly awaited world premiere of Grendel, which is the tale of the monster who is slain by Beowulf in the great mythological saga. It is told from the perspective of the monster and is mostly his internal monologues as he observes human foibles. The variety of dramatic action, visual, dance and vocal delights more than make up for this limitation.

This $3 million production combined lots of Hollywood razzle-dazzle as General Director Placido Domingo tapped a rich vein of creativity in his backyard. Movie composer Elliot Goldenthal (Frida) and his life partner Julie Taymor (the Lion King) collaborated with librettist J.D. McClatchy and set designer George Tsypin and proceeded to enthrall and astonish the audience.

Lucky opera goers who saw the San Francisco Opera´s Dr. Atomic last year may recall the singer who portrayed General Leslie Groves this time singing a powerful, yet at times wistful, title role. Bass-baritone Eric Owens deserves to go forward to a fine career following this tour de force role as Grendel.

The Taymor touch using a wide range of masks, sculptural forms of strange animals, shadow play using projections and elements of Japanese and Indonesian story telling gives an exotic and intriguing flavor.

The opera is a joint production with the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in Manhattan where it will be presented in mid-July.

Other singers who gave outstanding performances include Bay Area favorites Laura Claycomb, as the gorgeous Queen Wealtheow, who awakens the first longings of human sexuality in the monster, and Denyce Graves, who demonstrates an amazing range as the dragon. This dragon is so big that mezzo Graves was able to make her entrance on a chaise emitted by a fiery breath of the dragon´s tongue.

Conductor Steven Sloane deserves special mention as does the choreographic work of Angelin Preljocaj. Incidentally, by the opera's end when the monster is slain, we do feel a great deal of sympathy for his all too human frailties which echoes the way the movies left us with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein or King Kong.

(SJOG Newsletter August, 2006 Issue)

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