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Grendel: Modern Monster Opera

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We caught the June 8 performance of Grendel at the Los Angeles Opera, which, due to some previous technical setbacks, turned out to be the world premiere. The opera tells the story of Beowulf, a human epic of a battle against a monster, from the point of view of the monster.

The production uses puppets with a variety of influences in addition to the human actor/singers -- this production is from many of the same people who did the stage musical of The Lion King. The design of the puppets clearly included influences from all over the world, and balanced realism and abstraction according to the needs of the story. It also played with scale. Grendel is bigger than the humans, so in a scene in which he attacks a mead-hall, you see exterior and interior scenes from the hall on a platform and on the floor of the stage. This was really well-done. There's also an excellent exchange with a dragon that serves as the story's centerpiece.

The music was neither bombastic nor shrill. It didn't have many memorable melodies on its own, but it melded well with the lyrics and the visual images on the stage. The show opens with the Grendel singing in contemporary American English, then incorporates some of the Old English language of the Beowulf epic for some of the humans' songs, then eases back into contemporary English as the people develop their civilization. This ties to the roots of the idea of telling the story from the monster's point of view in John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel, and also to this opera's creators' view that the ancient monster Grendel is the character in the story who best represents the contemporary point of view. When Beowulf finally appears near the end, he's played by a dancer rather than a singer, and the singing of his part is done by a whole chorus, again suggesting a divide between the wild, solitary state represented by the monster and the human unity of civilization. Beowulf was good, but through most of the performance, the choreography consisted of a lot of rolling around on the floor in gray unitards, which isn't awful, but you've definitely seen it before.