Saturday 3 October 2009

Review of Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre"

I first saw Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre when ENO first performed it in the 1980's in a rather 'po faced' production by Elijah Moshinsky which seemed to be set in and around the Hammersmith Flyover.

Now the opera is back, in a new production by the Catalan group La Fura del Baus. Since the 1982 Coliseum performance Ligeti has made revisions to the piece, dropping much of the spoken text and setting the remainder to music, thinning and simplifying the orchestration. Though there are still spoken moments, the result is that the piece is more thorough-going operatic than it was.

The concept of La Fura del Baus production was that the entire action took place in and around the huge body of a woman, with the cast make entrances and exits through her orifices. During the prelude, played on car horns, we saw a film of the woman apparently eating herself to death. The huge model was manipulated around the stage in fantastic manner and the use of projection was quite stunning, so that the body could be transformed in a moment from a skeleton to a writhing mass of burning people.

As a piece of theatre the result was stunning and made for a gripping 2 hours in the theatre. But Ligeti evidently had a very precise view of how the opera should look and had dislike most of the productions that he saw during his lifetime. It is a moot point whether he would have liked this one. I could not help feeling that setting the action in a more realistic setting would have helped emphasise the surreal nature of the plot, whereas putting a surreal play into a setting which is equally mad, seemed to de-nature it somewhat. Watching the production, I could not help thinking of Joe Orton's early novel, Head to Toe which all takes place in and around the body of a giant woman, and wondered whether the Catalan directors had read it too.

The cast were impressive. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke delivered a tour-de-force performance as Piet the Pot, with impressive English diction, it must be one of the few roles where the tenor's stomach has to make a starring role. Pavlo Hunka (UK born despite his name) was Nekrotzar and was impressive but perhaps just a little too personable and lacked the feeling that he was capable of random violence. Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone were the lovers, Amando and Amanda, dressed in what appeared to be flayed flesh. Norwegian Frode Olsen (also with impressive diction) was Astradamors, bravely spending the entire evening wearing a pink camisole. Susan Bickley had a whale of a time as his wife Mescalina.

Susan Andersson was truly impressive in the two spectacular coloratura roles, Venus and Gepopo the chief of Secret Police. Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss formed a neat double act the the two ministers, with Butteriss got up Black and White minstrel fashion as the Black minister. Andrew Watts was Prince Gepopo, proving that the role works well if sung by the right counter-tenor (Ligeti preferred a woman or a boy). The whole was beautifully orchestrated by conductor Baldur Bronnimann.

The end result was a delightful night in the theatre, but it still left me thinking what is it for? Ligeti intended his piece as a sort of anti-opera, or perhaps and anti-anti-opera and took part of his inspiration from the Venetian baroque where the operas consisted of a stream of often barely related scenes.

It is over 25 years since I saw the work and I'm afraid that the new ENO production did not convince me that there was any reason why I shouldn't wait another 25 years before seeing it again.

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