According to the programme notes, Le Grand Macabre is an anti-anti-Opera in that it is to some extent a reaction against an artistic movement (“anti-Opera“) that sought to avoid and/or subvert the conventions of Opera. Thinking as a physicist, on the basis that C2=1, you would be forced to call this work an Opera, but György Ligeti‘s extraordinary apocalyptic surrealist farce is unlike any Opera I’ve ever seen. The production now running at English National Opera (which I went to see last night, Saturday 3rd October 2009) is a fabulously over-the-top realization of this wonderfully quirky piece of musical theatre.
I’m not sure I can really describe the plot as there isn’t one as such. The Opera is split onto four scenes which are like comic sketches bearing only slight narrative relationship to each other. The result is a bit like Monty Python meets The Magic Flute. However, Mozart’s Opera managed to become an acknowledged masterpiece without its plot making any kind of sense, so in that respect this work is certainly in good company!
It probably suffices to explain that Le Grand Macabre is actually Death (in the Opera his real name is Nektrotzar and he’s played by Pavlo Hunka). He keeps appearing, complete with scythe, trumpet and egg-timer and warning of the forthcoming End of the World. Somehow, though, there’s always an excuse for it not arriving; just like the British railways. At one point, just as he seems to be getting it together to send everyone to their doom, two characters ply him with wine so he’s too sozzled to blow the Last Trump. The idea of getting Death too drunk to organize Armageddon is just one example of the bizarre sense of humour that courses throughout this piece.
Other principals include the lovers Amando and Amanda who are dressed in costumes of flayed skin, like refugees from the Bodyworlds exhibition. These two are at it like rabbits all the time, but also have lovely music to sing while they’re on the job. Apparently their names were originally supposed to be Spermando and Clitoris, but it was decided that was a bit too rude…
We also have the court astrologer (Astradamors; Frode Olsen)) and his dominatrix wife (Mescalina; Susan Bickley), the latter with fake comedy boobs, a full wardrobe of SM gear and an excessively hairy “spider” (nudge nudge). Prince Go-Go is the effete ruler who wears a gold suit and who blames the impending annihilation of his land on his ministers, a role brilliantly sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts. I’ve never heard a male singer with such effortless control at the extreme end of his vocal range. And while we’re on about stratospheric singing, I have to mention Susanna Andersson who doubles as the goddess Venus (in a diaphonous suit that looked like it was made of pink candy-floss) and Gepopo, the chief of the secret police (in full modern body armour).
Le Grand Macabre is set in the imaginary Bruegelland, inspired by the paintings of Peter Bruegel and Hieronymous Bosch and this production borrows a great deal of imagery from their paintings. The critics have devoted a great deal of attention to the spectacular set, but reading about it doesn’t really prepare you for the real thing. After a short piece of film projected onto a giant screen, the curtain goes up to reveal a huge-scale torso of a naked woman that looms over the stage (see below). The head of this figure moves, clever projection effects give it facial expressions and change the appearance of its body into, e.g., a skeleton, its eyes sometimes glow red, and the whole thing also rotates so it can be viewed from different directions and used in different ways in different parts of the Opera. At various points characters emerge from the mouth, nipples, and other orifices. Yes, from there too!
All the action is carried out in front of, on top of, or inside this amazing structure. In one scene the figure has been cut in half exposing its insides, an image clearly originating in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:
Soldiers first force their way on stage through huge wobbly intestines, then the empty body cavity becomes a nightclub in which amongst other things, the dancers do a hilarious skit on Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
Making this whole thing work to such stunning dramatic effect is an amazing achievement, and this production is worth seeing just for that. At least part of the joy of Opera is the sense of spectacle and this is indeed spectacular.
But I think it’s also important not to let the scenery and staging overshadow the rest of the work too. Although its critical reception has been very mixed, I thought Le Grand Macabre was absolutely superb. My companions thought it was a blast too.
For a start, it is hilariously funny (although quite rude and sexually explicit). Part of the humour is crudely lavatorial: there’s a sequence where two characters have a obscene name-calling contest which would have schoolboys chuckling with glee, and the whole show abounds with knob jokes and scatological remarks. However, there’s another level to the humour that derives from references to other composers and operas. My musical vocabulary isn’t that wide, but I definitely spotted irreverent quotes from Monteverdi, Beethoven, and Wagner. The final scene of the opera – a kind of epilogue for which all the principals return to the stage and sing sanctimonious platitudes to the audience – just has to be a pisstake of the ending of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The designers of the Opera also took a cue from the nature of the music, to make lots of visual jokes on stage. I’ve already mentioned the Michael Jackson reference – which was great – but there’s also more than a nod in the direction of Ridley Scott.
Don’t get the impression that this is just a kind of pastiche. Ligeti does borrow ideas from elsewhere but there’s also a lot of his own uniquely quirky musical material in it too. From the Dress Circle we could see the orchestra pit filled with peculiar bits and pieces: sledge hammers, whistles, air raid sirens and the like. But there are passages with a fairly conventional orchestration that are just as innovative as those for which the funny instruments and special effects are needed. I didn’t know much about Ligeti’s music before this performance, but I’m definitely going to listen to more of his work in the future.
So there we are then. My second Opera in two days, and both of them were superb. Le Grande Macabre, played to a full house at the Coliseum, and Friday’s Wozzeck were greeted with enthusiastic applause. I’m heartened that it’s not only La Traviata that bring people to the Opera. However, that’s all the Opera I’ll be seeing and writing about until mid-November. Until then no doubt I’ll be returning to the real Bruegelland of UK science funding…