I was fortunate enough to see
English National Opera’s British premiere of György Ligeti’s Le
Grand Macabre in 1982 at the London Coliseum, superbly conducted
by Elgar Howarth in a spectacular production designed by Elijah Moshinsky,
with an excellent cast that included Penelope MacKay, Jean Rigby, Geoffrey
Chard, Dennis Wicks, Anna Howard, Marilyn Hill Smith.
This Barbican concert performance
was of Ligeti’s 1996 revised score with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and
Singers under the baton of Alexander Rumpf, who was standing in for
an indisposed Michael Boder. Instead of sets we had two screens depicting
slides of the original costume and set designs by Roland Topor, commissioned
for a staged performance of Le Grand Macabre at the Teatro Comunale
di Bologna in May 1979. The slides were embarrassingly crude and a distraction.
To really work Le Grand Macabre needs bizarre sets and costumes,
as it is an opera about visual imagery as much as sounds and I missed
the spectacle of Moshinsky’s surrealist sets. Yet the sheer lack of
them forced one’s imagination to work, and one could visualise what
one wanted. The costumed cast also made up for the lack of staging,
their flamboyant acting proving them all to be totally integrated into
Ligeti says of his opera: "It’s
a Rabelaisian world, a world full of obscenities, sexual and scatological.
People are constantly eating and drinking and leading a very chaotic
life. It all happens in a sort of broken-down dictatorship where two
opposing parties, both completely corrupt pursue in reality the same
crooked policies…It’s tragic and light-hearted at the same time…It’s
not my intention to be provocative, though naturally I enjoy shocking
people a bit."
Ligeti’s hybrid score does not
fit into any particular genre or style but floats between opera and
comic farce and could be nominated as Carnivalesque. The carnivalesque
is the grotesque and surreal use of satire and parody where meaning
becomes meaningless and sense becomes nonsense, and it is Ligeti’s inversion
and subversion of language that is the essential hallmark of the opera.
The ‘singers’ are also required to bellow, boom, grunt, shriek, and
burp. Here Ligeti is concerned with the sensation and repetition of
words and not necessarily their meaning.
This is particularly evident in
the scene where the crowd (BBC Singers) cheering Prince Go-Go, repeat
the phrase ‘Our Great Leader!, Our Great Leader!, Our Great Leader!’
- which gradually gets faster and faster and seemed to go on for an
eternity. This mesmerising effect made the words sound deliberately
hollow and meaningless like the chanted slogans of any rent-a-mob. The
Chief of Police – a shrill, perfectly judged coloratura performance
by Caroline Stein - also had a similar line after this that sounded
close to madness by repeating the phrase: ‘Da-Da, Da-Da, Da-Da’ dozens
of times and at different registers. By doing this Ligeti is concerned
by the dynamic contrasts between sense and nonsense, language as communication
and language as sensation. This is again illustrated when we go through
the alphabet with name calling – using epithets like "Piddlepants!"
"Pimply ponce!". The opera also includes S&M, nymphomania, scatology,
swearing (this must be the first opera ever to have the word ‘cunt’
in it) infantilism and the apocalypse - but all done ‘seriously tongue-in-cheek’.
Graham Clarke delivered the role
of the constantly drunken Piet the Pot, the opera’s common man, with
a humorous relish, making gurgling and squeaking sounds about the joys
of getting pissed. The two lovers, Johannette Zomer as Amanda and Hanne
Fischer as Amando were a perfectly matched duo who sung ironically and
cynically about love with quasi-Baroque orchestral embellishments.
Willard White as Nekrotzar (the
Grand Macabre of the title who comes to announce the end of the world)
spoke and sang with his customary power and authority, inspiring terror.
The highlight of the evening was Nekrotzat’s doomsday speech, with White
giving a potent performance. Hilary Summers as Mescalinahad the right thrusting, domineeringly butch voice to carry
off her sarcastic S & M diatribes.
Prince Go-Go, manically performed
by counter-tenor David Walker had just the right dandyish voice for
the role and integrated well with Steven Cole’s White Minister and Frans
Fiselier’s Black Minister.
For sheer radical orchestration
I rank Le Grand Macabre along with Richard Strauss’s Elektra,
as the two greatest operas of the twentieth century. The importance
of the orchestral textures being totally integrated with the voices
is essential to both operas and both Ligeti and Strauss use intensive
writing for the timpani and bass-drum to create a nailing nervous intensity
as well as dark brooding woodwind and snarling brass.
The work opens with a fanfare
of motor horns which sound like they are in an argument and then sharing
a joke, which received much laughter from a packed house. The most remarkable
orchestration is the section called ‘Collage’ near the end of the opera
which started off as nervous murmurings, gradually building up with
the orchestra becoming agitated and anxious, producing hysterical fanfares
and anarchic sounds from the percussion and ending with the trombones
and tuba growling and grunting.
There is no ending but repetition
ad infinitum of life-death-life-death-life: do they ever die
or were they always already dead? Ligeti makes it a paradoxical parody,
playing with illusions and images of what is life and what is death.
The conducting was incisive and
perfectly paced and the BBC SO played with white hot intensity in impeccable
form; notable were the timpani, bass-drum and trombones, whilst the
BBC Singers and all the principals, especially the wonderful Willard
White, acquitted themselves superbly in this very difficult but rewarding