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S & H Opera Review

György Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre; BBC Singers, Justin Way (director); BBC Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Rumpf (conductor); Barbican, 19th October, 2003 (AR)

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 their roles.

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 score.

Alex Russell

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