Le Grand Macabre
Hannigan, Moraleda, Puche, Liang; Asawa, Merritt, Van Mechelen, F. Olsen; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Boder. Production: La Fura dels Baus. Arthaus Musik 101 643 (2 DVDs) or 108 058 (Blu-ray), 122 mins. (opera), 42 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Sometimes an important opera will languish on the fringes of the repertoire until a particular production comes along to demonstrate the possibilities in the work. It was true with the Robert Carsen–Michael Levine version of Boito's Mefistofele, and it was true with the John Cox–David Hockney version of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress. Now this production of Ligeti's Grand Macabre — in a conception by Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus, and set designer Alfons Flores — has won the opera a place in the world's major houses. It has been seen in Brussels, Rome, Adelaide and London (at English National Opera) and was filmed for DVD at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu.
Le Grand Macabre, based on a story by Michel de Ghelderode, is concerned with the end of the world and the way people behave when confronted with an impending apocalypse. Ollé's production, in close collaboration with Valentina Carrasco and video designer Franc Aleu, takes place inside, around and on top of an enormous, forty-foot fiberglass model of a naked woman. The model for the sculpture was in fact an opera singer, Claudia Schneider. During the first minute of the opera, we see a film in which Schneider begins to choke on a snack. The two-dimensional film, perfectly aligned with the statue, suddenly disappears, and the opera then takes place as if time were suspended during the few seconds when Schneider thinks she is going to die. Video projections constantly change the appearance of the sculpture; at one point it appears to be burning to a crisp; at another it seems to be transparent, giving the audience a view of a very realistic skeleton inside. But the truly extraordinary aspect of the design is that the sculpture is on a turntable, and all of the video projections have been programmed so that they remain in synch with the sculpture as it rotates a full three hundred sixty degrees.
This was quite a bit more awe-inspiring in the theater than it is on video, since we know how video can be manipulated, but it isn't the most interesting aspect of the production anyway. A concept shouldn't be a mere gimmick, and everybody knows that you have to stop playing with your toys when it's time for dinner. Toward the end of the third scene, before the imminent arrival of destruction, Ligeti's staggeringly inventive music goes into a goofy, lunatic, whatever works all-at-once mishmash. Here, the production has enough sense to give up the game. The whole cast literally dances the world away, even those singers not called for in the libretto. Venus serves champagne. It's a perfect illustration of the dramatic function of the music.
Conductor Michael Boder and the Liceu orchestra have mastered every demand of this gigantic symphonic conception. The score calls for well over sixty percussion instruments, six different keyboard instruments and three harmonica players. Conventional instruments are played in unconventional ways. At one point a percussionist is asked to "hurl the drum on the floor with vehemence." Every one of Ligeti's tasks is done with assurance and dramatic intent. The orchestral players in Nekrotzar's procession have memorized their parts and manage to play them on the rotating sculpture.
Ligeti's vocal demands are likewise extreme, but singers of standard repertoire have often met them. Here, Chris Merritt (better known for bel canto tenor roles), Ning Liang (a Met Octavian) and countertenor Brian Asawa (who has recorded Dowland lute songs) are highly proficient, as Piet the Pot, Mescalina and Prince Go-Go, respectively. The standout is Barbara Hannigan, who is both Venus and the hysteria-prone chief of police Gepopo, the latter character remarkably similar to the "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" cartoon.
The filthy libretto, sung in Geoffrey Skelton's English translation, has been tweaked to make it even more obscene. This will put off many people, who will give up on the opera before getting to Ligeti's surprising, wistfully beautiful music toward the end. On the other hand, some of us think Turandot is repulsive and obscene. There's an opera out there for everybody, it seems.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.