Monday 16 January 2017

Black morality tale: Ligeti's Le grand Macabre at the Barbican

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra and ensemble at the Barbican Hall - John Phillips/Getty Images
Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra and ensemble at the Barbican Hall
John Phillips/Getty Images
Ligeti Le grand Macabre; Peter Hoare, Pavlo Hunka, Ronnita Milller, Elizabeth Watts, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, dir: Peter Sellars, London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, cond: Simon Rattle; Barbcian Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 15 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Musically magical, but a heavy-handed staging dampens the humorous anarchy of Ligeti's surreal opera

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Pavlo Hunka, Peter Hoare - John Phillips/Getty Images
Pavlo Hunka, Peter Hoare - John Phillips/Getty Images
Ligeti's opera Le grand Macabre seems to hold a constant fascination for companies, so crops up rather more than you might expect. Latest to stage this is the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor Simon Rattle, whose semi-staging is shared with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (where Rattle conducts it in February with a slightly different cast), with Peter Sellars in charge of the staging. We caught the second of two performances in the Barbican Hall on Sunday 15 January 2017. (It was Sellars in the late 1990s who staged the work in Salzburg after Ligeti had substantially revised it; a staging which replaced the work's ambiguity with explicit references to Chernobyl.) At the Barbican, Peter Hoare was Piet the Pot, Ronnita Miller was Amando, Elizabeth Watts was Amanda, Pavlo Hunka was Nekrotzar, Frode Olsen was Astradamors, Heidi Melton was Mescalina and Anthony Roth Costanzo was Prince Go-Go, with Audrey Luna, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Christian Valle, Fabian Langguth and Benson Wilson. Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus. Hans-Georg Lenhart was assistant director, with lighting by Ben Zamora, costumes by Michelle Bradbury, and video by Nick Hillel.

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Peter Tantsits, Joshu Bloom, Anthony Roth Costanzo - John Phillips/Getty Images
Peter Tantsits, Joshu Bloom, Anthony Roth Costanzo
John Phillips/Getty Images
Ligeti's only opera, Le grand Macabre is based on a 1930s surrealist play and was premiered in Stockholm in 1978. Since then the piece has been getting progressively less anarchic, and taking itself more seriously. Early on Ligeti renamed to lovers to the rather less scabrous Amando and Amanda, and the 1990s revision continued this by making cuts in the spoken dialogue and setting the remainder to music. But what remains still has a certain anarchic quality, mixing humour with serious elements and a great deal of sex. At its best the work uses humour and savage irony to treat a serious subject, and Ligeti allows for a variety of points of view in his ending where it is not clear whether the characters are alive or dead.

What remains, of course, is the music with the dazzling array of textures created by Ligeti using his orchestra (reduced strings, extended percussion department), including the famous preludes on car horns and on bells, plus of course clocks and much else besides. There is a logic behind it, the work is not just a jeux d'esprit, but Ligeti uses the virtues of surrealist anarchy to keep us guessing, and the work never preaches.

Having the piece performed at the Barbican rightly put Simon Rattle and the LSO centre stage, and we could appreciate in full the dazzle and subtlety of Ligeti's score, and Rattle drew some wondrous playing for the orchestra. The more mad-cap moments were, perhaps, a bit too serious and heavy handed, Rattle seemed to be saying that this was a serious piece of music. But the ending with its passacaglia, really brought out the sheer beauty of Ligeti's music.

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Body of Gepopo (Audrey Luna) being taken off in a body bag by stage crea- John Phillips/Getty Images
Body of Gepopo (Audrey Luna) being taken off in a body bag
by stage crew - John Phillips/Getty Images
For Peter Sellars too, Le grand Macabre is a serious piece of music. And unfortunately by taking the work too seriously, Sellars weakened it by removing much of the sex and humour, simply leaving heavy political posturing. It was far more than a semi-staging, with the cast off the book and full action. Sellars starts it at a nuclear energy conference, with Peter Hoare's Piet the Pot as drunken speaker. The lovers Amando and Amanda (Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts) seemed to be scientists, as were Astradamos and Mescalina (Frode Olsen and Heidi Melton), but there was little sex or humour in the way Sellars staged it, with Amando and Amanda sitting almost motionless side by side, and Astradamos and Mescalina having their abusive relationship on-line. Nekrotzar (Pavlo Hunka) delivered his threat via a nuclear holocaust and in the second half everyone is suited up and dying (soprano Audrey Luna as Gepopo gets taken out in a body bag!). At the end, Sellars is very definite, everyone is dead. For the bits that Sellars was unable to stage, there was Nick Hillel's video to fill in the gaps.

The result had theatrical dazzle, and used the full Barbican Hall to great effect. The London Symphony Chorus invaded the auditorium to great effect (there was no room for them on the stage), which necessitated Simon Halsey as a white-coated subsidiary conductor, and Audrey Luna's Venus appeared from high in the auditorium. Individual groups of instrumentalists were similarly highlighted.

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Astradamors (Frode Olsen) and Nekrotzar (Peter Hoare), dragging Mescalina (Heidi Melton)  - John Phillips/Getty Images
Astradamors (Frode Olsen) & Nekrotzar (Peter Hoare),
dragging Mescalina (Heidi Melton) - John Phillips/Getty Images
Of course, this had a bad effect on balance; something very necessary, as Ligeti's world might be dramatically anarchic, but his musical effects are carefully controlled. For one long passage I had the London Symphony Chorus stood in the aisle next to me, so I could hear very little apart from them. At the end of scene two, Pavlo Hunka's Nekrotzar had difficulty establishing his authority because he did not win the contest with Rattle and the LSO, who effortlessly dominated the sound picture.

Peter Hoare was simply brilliant as Piet the Pot, vocally incisive with an awareness of the quality of the words. You felt that he could have been far funnier if he had been allowed. Hunka was an impressive but not ideal Nekrotzar, his voice perhaps a little to light to establish the vocal authority which the role needs, though he was dramatically very vivid. Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts were superb lovers (Miller singing the role as a woman and not en travestie), and went a long way to putting the sex back into their relationship by musical means, giving us some really seductive singing. They made this difficult music sound luxuriously easy. Heidi Melton and Frode Olsen did their best, but their scene was simply lacking in the essential humour and the depiction of their relationship came over as a bit puritanically disapproving, rather than giving us the belly laugh we wanted.

Ligeti - Le grand Macabre - Audrey Luna, Simon Rattle, LSO  - John Phillips/Getty Images
Audrey Luna, Simon Rattle, LSO - John Phillips/Getty Images
There was very little context for Anthony Roth Costanzo (Prince Go-Go), Peter Tantsits (Black Minister), Joshua Bloom (White Minister), they were simply wearing anti-radiation suits, but the three made the drama count. Having Audrey Luna's Gepopo dying of radiation sickness brought a sort of grim sense to the piece, and this scene was one of the few really gripping ones. It helped that Luna was fully up to the crazy radicalism of Ligeti's coloratura.

The non-event/event of the apocalypse was somehow dramatically underwhelming, and it was here that Rattle and his orchestra really took over to fill in the gaps, and we were grateful for being able to have such a luxurious hand on this music. Sellars might have made the ending completely unambiguous but there was something eerily gripping about it, helped by some striking performances with Anthony Roth Costanzo's Prince Go-Go being particularly touching.

I have to confess to still being in two minds about Ligeti's opera. This is the third time I have seen it, having seen it staged at ENO in 1982 and in 2009, and still something about the score eludes me.  Perhaps, partly because directors have a tendency to take the work a little too seriously and that the work's scabrous and savage Monty-Python-esque irony is missed.

In the concert hall, lacking the full facilities of a complete staging Peter Sellars' staging came over as simply heavy handed whereas in the theatre he might have had more space for larger effects and contrasting theatrical subtlety. You cannot help thinking that the sort of semi-staging where the singers are off the book and give us basic entrances and exits would have worked a lot better, allowing room for greater theatrical imagination. What we could admire was the superb control which Rattle and the LSO brought to the score, and a cast who displayed hardly a weak link and made dazzling work of Ligeti's tricky vocal writing.

Opera in four scenes to a libretto by György Ligeti and Michael Meschke freely adapted from Michel de Ghelderode’s play La balade du grand macabre

Original version first performance 12 April 1978, Royal Opera Stockholm; new version first performance 28 July 1997, Großes Festspielhaus Salzburg
English translation by Geoffrey Skelton.

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Peter Sellars director

Peter Hoare - Piet the Pot (tenor)
Ronnita Miller - Amando (mezzo-soprano)
Elizabeth Watts - Amanda (soprano)
Pavlo Hunka - Nekrotzar (bass-baritone)
Frode Olsen - Astradamors (bass)
Heidi Melton - Mescalina (soprano)
Audrey Luna - Venus, Gepopo (soprano)
Anthony Roth Costanzo - Prince Go-Go (counter-tenor)
Peter Tantsits - White Minister (tenor)
Joshua Bloom - Black Minister (bass)
Christian Valle - Ruffiack (bass)
Fabian Langguth - Schobiak (baritone)
Benson Wilson - Schabernack (bass)
London Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey - chorus director
Duncan Ward - assistant conductor
Hans-Georg Lenhart - assistant director
Ben Zamora - lighting designer
Michelle Bradbury - costume designer
Nick Hillel - video designer
Betsy Ayer - stage manager
Richard Peirson, Zeynep Özsuca - répétiteurs

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