Thursday, July 13, 2006

Get the Geats

Philip Kennicott has a long and brilliant review of Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor's Grendel in the Washington Post today. I especially admired this observation about the John Gardner novel that is the opera's source:

Grendel's voice is familiar, and in the end, you realize that you know him well: He's one of those fabulous old drunks who used to haunt the English departments of small universities, with his head filled with the poems of Milton and Plath, his heart filled with self-loathing and his liver filled with half-metabolized gin. Gardner's Grendel could walk out of his cave and straight into Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" without so much as chipping a teacup.

Kennicott has read Gardner, and has a lot to say about where the opera hews to the novel or diverges from it (though some of that is misremembered — Grendel's somewhat sentimental susceptibility to the beauty of Hrothgar's queen, for example, is straight from Gardner). Tony Tommasini, by contrast, evidently has not, and confesses with admirable candor that he couldn't always figure out what was going on in the piece.

It's an open question which approach, if either, is preferable. Prepping is swell, but often — especially in connection with a new work — it puts a critic in a somewhat artificial position. Before reviewing the world premiere Los Angeles in June, I read not only Gardner but Beowulf (finally, for the first time); as a result, I was in no doubt about the shape of the piece, but also quite possibly blind to its narrative flaws. An opera should obviously be comprehensible, after all, even to a viewer coming in fresh. Doing my homework made it impossible for me to assess that question.


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