Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre

English National Opera

The Coliseum, 20 September 2009 4 stars

Pavlo HunkaMuch hype has surrounded this new production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre by Catalan outfit La Fura dels Baus. Running it jointly in a four-way partnership with opera houses in Brussels, Rome, London and Barcelona, ENO has chosen it as the spark to set off the 2009-10 season. And if fireworks are what you’re after you won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer. If nothing else it makes for a spectacular, raucous and bawdy two-or-so hours. Ultimately, though, the show amounts to more than the sum of these elements, transcending the hype to succeed as a solid production of a challenging contemporary opera.

Not the least of the challenges posed by the opera comes from the storyline itself. While we are more accustomed to the ‘difficult’ element of a contemporary opera being its untuneful music – angular extremes of vocal lines, the doom and dread of orchestral atonality – the music here is actually an easy pill to swallow. So varied is Ligeti’s rag-bag of techniques, and by so consummate a composer are they crafted and put into play, that the emanations of sound from the singers and from the pit, unmistakably modern though they are, do not much disturb the ear. Rather, they seem quite natural coming from the bizarre environment of the opera’s setting: the weird and fantastical Breughelland, and its cartoonish denizens. One expects nothing less from the parade of ghoulish and absurd figures onstage than that they squeak and holler along their prancing path. It is to the opera’s credit that this openness in the audience’s ear exists. No doubt its successful marriage of subject matter and music is the reason Ligeti’s only opera has been so successful since its debut production in Stockholm in 1978.

Instead of difficult music, the ‘difficult’ element of Le Grand Macabre for me – and one that makes it potentially unpalatable as two-and-a-quarter hours of opera – is the meagre plot used to bind together the action. The storyline is simply not enough to tax the audience’s interest any further than a straightforward enjoyment of its absurdity and of the characters’ novelty. Absurdity and novelty are not such a bad thing, of course, and in lieu of plot they will, if done well, suffice. But that depends on the production. Luckily enough, the production here most certainly comes up trumps, and lifts the show.

The plot is as follows. It is the weird locale of Breughelland, in some undisclosed period of history. Some of the inhabitants are going about their usual nightly business – carousing in the case of drunk Piet the Pot, sexual licentiousness in the case of indivisible lovers Amando and Amanda. All of a sudden they are greeted by the embodiment of Death itself, calling himself Nekrotzar – the ‘Grand Macabre’ of the title. Nekrotzar announces to a terrified Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh, and will arrive for the inhabitants of Breughelland tonight at the stroke of midnight. The action then proceeds to the house of the court astronomer, Astradamors, who is engaged in an S&M session with his fearsome wife, Mescalina, a session interrupted by Nekrotzar and his now-servant Piet. From here the action swiftly moves to the palace of Prince Go-Go, lord of the land, who is berated at each ear by the Black and White Ministers, political rivals. Go-Go is in trouble with an angry mob that is nearing the palace, and is warned so by Gepopo, the chief of the secret police. Nekrotzar arrives with Piet and Astradamors to proclaim the end of the world and to reap its harvest. But instead of carrying it off, he gets drunk and misses midnight. When he regains consciousness and finds he has missed his cue, he disappears, leaving the rest in doubt as to whether the end of the world has actually happened or not, and as to whether they are alive or dead. In any case they decide to celebrate living in their own way, the opera ending with a big drunken singsong of a passacaglia.

Susanna AnderssonQuite entertaining. But when we know in advance what is to happen at the end (and I’ve just told you in case you didn’t already know), there is not much surprise or suspense involved in the overall arc of the show, and the story falls a little flat. The characters are two-dimensional at best: the drunk, the lovers, the put-upon husband and domineering wife, the dim-witted prince. In this we are given a sort of ‘pre-psychological’ type of characterisation, as befits a story taking inspiration from the Middle-Ages of Breughel and Bosch, when characters were a lot more straightforward than we have since come to expect. Also in line with this anachronistic quality, we have allegorical embodiments: that of Death, as well as that of Venus as goddess of love. All of this is done with a knowing wink, so that it be understood we don’t have to take it too seriously. But the lack of depth in characterisation and plot means something special needs to be pulled out of the bag production- or performance-wise, in order to stave off boredom.

Which this production manages with aplomb. The centrepiece of La Fura dels Baus’s set is a giant prosthetic body, spanning the entire space of the stage, which acts in centripetal fashion to hold together the action and scenes throughout. Everything happens in front of, on top of, in or around the body, an ingenious concept that comes off like a charm. Named Claudia by its creators (led by La Fura dels Baus founder Alex Ollé and set designer Alfons Flores), it is a marvel of a stage prop, a gargantuan figure that sits happily with the minutiae of its surroundings and environmentally sets the tone for the carnivalesque displacements to come (most of the characters are similarly defined by displaced characteristics – masculine women, womanly men and so on). When Nekrotzar makes his entrance, he does so by descending out of one of the body’s nostrils, and various ghouls spill out of or into the body at different moments of the action.

Much of the time the body is used as a canvas for lighting and video (designed by Peter van Praet and Franc Aleu respectively). There is no backdrop other than it, the space behind it always left in pitch-black darkness. Thus are lit up scenes of fire and brimstone when Nekrotzar is recounting the day of the apocalypse; when the entire body rotates around for the second act, it is turned into a vast skeleton by a complete projection onto it that moves in time with the rotating body; and often the expression on its face changes, its eyes shifting around, its mouth seeming to move and its head to fall off. It is an impressive feat that keeps you rapt as to what it will do next, at times taking on a beguilingly realistic expression. During a brilliant scene at Prince Go-Go’s palace, the back of the body opens up and is unexpectedly turned into a nightclub, complete with dancefloor, glitterball and two bars. Such body-based humour is very much in line with the libretto and the ethos of Breughelland itself – drink and indulge and be merry, for we do not know what lies around the corner. Perhaps the biggest applause of the night came when the ghoulish players at the disco began doing the dance from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, dancing around in the place of the body’s eviscerated intestines.

Helping the cast was the visually arresting costume design of Lluc Castels. The cast in general were on good form, individually and as an ensemble – although perhaps inevitably there was a little less spotlight for them here than there would be in a more orthodox piece. Standouts were mezzo Susan Bickley, as a domineering but sympathy-elicting Mescalina; countertenor Andrew Watts, as a camp, cavorting and calculating Prince Go-Go; and soprano Susanna Andersson, playing both Venus and Gepopo, Chief of the Secret Police. In the latter role, Andersson was particularly impressive – racing about the stage, leaping onto tables and crawling around on the floor, all the while issuing forth the most un-patriarchal of coloratura vocal lines.

It is such contrast between role and character that all the characterisation in Le Grand Macabre is based on, an upsetting of expectations by which the story – only just – manages to sustain itself. The main role, that of Nekrotzar, was at times I thought a little underplayed by Pavlo Hunka. It took him a while to warm up, sometimes in the early stages being drowned out by an over-keen orchestra. Naturally we desire the figure of death to be an imposing one, and to dominate whatever stage he appears on; but that wasn’t the case here. Upon reflection, though, it was precisely this underwhelming quality that was Hunka’s intended effect: death turns out to be a charlatan, undercut by the turn of events, in the end disappearing as a meek shadow.

Just how much Baldur Brönnimann had prepared the difficult score with the ENO Orchestra was always evident. Crisp and clear playing shone through throughout, with good balance between the different orchestral sections and tangible impetus driving the segues between scenes. The brass section in particular sounded wholesome and fiery, with some trumpets and trombones placed up in the top balcony making for occasional and brilliantly disorientating antiphony. The score, following Ligeti’s avant-garde wont, calls for some unorthodox instrumentation: music box, car horns, fire whistles, newspaper, sirens, and crockery in a bag are all used at various points. The hugely expanded percussion section on the night was on top form. When I looked down into the pit a couple of times during the show, the orchestra seemed to be very much enjoying themselves.

Susan BickleyAs were the audience up above them, who more than a few times on the night were raised to laughter. Though this has been called an anti-opera, and even an anti-anti-opera (by Ligeti himself), it is in fact neither of these. More simply, it is an up-to-date, and in no way radically unconventional opera, which refrains from critical sermonising on opera as a genre, limiting itself instead to occasional pastiche and quotation. Fun, lightness and levity are the main principles in display, despite that force of morbidity that is everywhere present. Make no mistake, this is an opera about death; but it is one in which Rabelaisian precepts – rather to write about laughing than about crying – triumph. In this it is a show that is easy for all to enjoy, despite its flimsy storyline and characters, and provided the viewer is not of a prudish disposition. Le Grand Macabre is something of a cartoon, albeit one decidedly not for kids.

By Liam Cagney

Photos: Bernd Uhlig

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