death defying opera

chris reid: ligeti’s le grand macabre, adelaide festival


Premiered in 1978 and revised in 1996, Le Grand Macabre is a magnificent piece of comic music theatre, complex, demanding and highly entertaining, and this is a wonderful production, with outstanding performances and staging. The story, drawn from the absurdist play La Balade du Grand Macabre by Michel de Ghelderode, tells the story of Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, who returns from hell to destroy the world with a comet sent by God. Though wreaking havoc, Nekrotzar fails in his quest, and the opera ends optimistically with an exhortation, “Fear not to die, good people all, no-one knows when his hour will fall.” Instead, our profane ways go unpunished, love triumphs and we are urged to embrace happiness.

This production, directed by Valentina Carrasco and Àlex Ollé of Spanish performance group La Fura dels Baus, opens with a projected video showing a woman who is ill to the point of collapse and surrounded by the detritus of gluttonous bingeing. The video then gives way to the theatre set, where we see a model of the sprawling woman, now naked and enlarged to fill the stage, her face frozen in horror. The action takes place inside and around this monstrous, abject figure, which is rotated to voyeuristic viewing positions and strategically dismantled while all kinds of imagery are projected onto it—the comet, a skeleton, heads rolling under Nekrotzar’s scythe, Breughel-like figures descending into hell, and then the fires of hell itself. The surreal play thus appears as the nightmare or hallucination of a sick woman. The staging suggests all kinds of allegories, from Gulliver in Lilliput to a corpse being devoured by rodents. She is inert and helpless beneath her intruders, as the secret police emerge from her intestines and people walk in and out of her head, breast and vagina. Such a representation of woman is provocative and, some might suggest, obscenely incorrect, but she literally embodies our own anxieties, harrassed as we are by the troublemakers of society, and when her innards finally collapse, we feel her torment in our own abdomens.

Le Grand Macabre updates the traditions of opera with those of absurdist theatre, pondering the meaning of life in a licentious, ridiculous world. The setting is the fictional principality of Breughelland, and the characters are caricatures—Piet the Pot, a drunkard whom Nekrotzar enlists to support his mission; two insatiable lovers, Amando and Amanda; the astrologer Astradamors and his dominatrix partner Mescalina; Gepopo, the hysterical chief of secret police; and the impotent prince Go-Go and his fawning, bickering, manipulative ministers and brutal police. The satirical story addresses a range of political and social themes—Nekrotzar (the name suggests a dead tsar resurrected through necromancy) represents dictators from Hitler to Stalin who dominated Europe in Ligeti’s youth, and the comet suggests nuclear missiles. Sex, death and drunkenness are central—Astradamors and Mescalina’s sadomasochism represents the fickle ruler and the ruled, and Amanda and Amando, in costumes resembling anatomical illustrations as if they have been flayed, seek unattainable pleasure. At various times, characters fake death or think they are dead, or are dead and are then revived, as if death is merely an alternative and contingent state. Ultimately, Piet and Astradamors get Nekrotzar so drunk that he fails in his mission (a lesson for us all), suggesting that men are all dissolute failures. Gender issues are also central, amplified by the confronting set design—women can be independent and controlling, and can also be obsessed by desire. Gepopo and Venus are sung by the same actor (the wonderful Susanna Andersson), suggesting the interchangeability of the characters, and Amanda and Amando are both played by female performers, further confusing gender identities.

The brilliant score, opening with a fanfare of car-horns parodying a wind ensemble, is a collage of classical and operatic musical genres, fragments and gestures. Particular instruments emphasise characterisation, such as bassoons for Piet and rumbling brass for Nekrotzar. Scene one ends with a swirl of bassoons, bass clarinet and brass that echoes and elaborates the car-horn introduction. The lovers’ duet is exquisite, but haunted and disturbing, and the passacaglia finale is classically beautiful. A metronome, recalling an earlier work of Ligeti’s, Poéme Symphonique for 100 metronomes, ticks down the last hours of the world like a clock. To suit the action, the music is alternately slapstick, raucous, dramatic, gently melodic or ironic, sometimes underscoring and sometimes mocking the vocal line, or recreating the vernacular sound effects of urban life. The orchestra is heavily weighted towards winds, brass and percussion, with a reduced violin section. Robert Houssart’s conducting of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is excellent, ably supporting the superb cast of international and Australian soloists.

Such music is conspicuously different from the music of any era, challenging both the avant-garde conventions that dominated the early- and mid-20th century and the traditions of earlier opera. Neither classical nor modernist but referencing both, it is postmodernist, a milestone in the evolution of music, and particularly suited to the absurdist mockery of human foibles. Le Grand Macabre thus appears as Ligeti’s personal reaction to the music of his upbringing and to religious and political dogma, a unique statement in his oeuvre. Though it is rooted in the World War II and Cold War eras, it remains highly engaging artistically and still relevant in a world beset by the politicking around terrorism and climate change.

The opera concludes with a return to the opening video, where we see that the woman has recovered and is washing her face in the bathroom. The Fura Dels Baus production acknowledges the new normal of ‘televisual reality’ in 21st-century life, and this use of video as a framing device locates the opera as a cultural and historical document. Le Grand Macabre delivers ironically contrasting messages about the end of the world—selfishness, vanity and overconsumption bring on the illnesses of our society, but ultimately death happens anyway and, in the meantime, life, however meaningless, must be lived.

Adelaide Festival, Le Grande Macabre, music György Ligeti, libretto Ligeti and Michael Meschke,directors Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, conductor Robert Houssart, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, State Opera Chorus, a co-production of Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, English National Opera, Gran Teatro de Liceu, Barcelona and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma; Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Feb 26, 28, March 3, 4

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 4

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 April 2010