Last week saw the much-discussed East Coast premiere of Grendel, the Elliot Goldenthal/Julie Taymor opera that retells the ancient tale of Beowulf and Grendel from the ogre's point of view. This week, in hot pursuit of those revisionists, comes the real thing: Beowulf, the original epic, sung in the original Anglo-Saxon by Benjamin Bagby. (Don't worry: there will be video titles in modern English.)
Bagby, one of the world's most admired interpreters of medieval music and co-founder and director of the renowned ensemble Sequentia, has combined his knowledge of the performance practices of the Middle Ages with extensive ethnomusicological research to create a presentation along the lines of what an ancient bard might have done, narrating the text in song and accompanying himself on a six-string lyre.
He began working on Beowulf in 1987 and first presented a portion of the epic as a freestanding program in 1990. He subsequently performed the piece — specifically, a trimmed version of the first section of the text, dealing with the titular hero's defeat of the monster Grendel — to great acclaim throughout Europe and North America, including very successful performances at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival.
While there was subsequently discussion, earlier this decade, of several institutions co-commissioning performances of the entire five-hour epic, that project had to be abandoned due to insufficient funding. Bagby's current version does, however, include the complete first part of the text, lines 1-1062, covering Beowulf's arrival in Denmark, defeat of the monster Grendel and the subsequent celebrations.
"For those who have seen my performances during the 1990's," Bagby writes on his website, "the differences with 2006 will be more than obvious. The intervening years have witnessed ... a major shift in my mode of performance, with more freedom in use of voice and instrument, gesture and rhetoric. I feel I have finally made the ancient language my own and have begun to fully inhabit the role of the bard performing within an oral tradition." Considering the acclaim he garnered before — "He has a communicative power that transcends language" (Boston Globe); "Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell as ever a man has" (New York Times) — the latest version should be one powerful experience.
Benjamin Bagby performs Beowulf on July 18, 19, 21 and 22 (Tues., Wed., Fri. and Sat.) at 8:30 p.m. at the LaGuardia Drama Theater, LaGuardia High School, Amsterdam Avenue and West 65th Street. The performance lasts approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.