Le Grand Macabre (1974-77, rev. 1996) [122:00]
Opera in two acts (four scenes). Libretto by György Ligeti in collaboration with Michael Meschke, based on a work by Michel de Ghelderode. Revised version, sung in English with subtitles in various languages.
Piet the Pot: Chris Merritt; Amando: Inés Moraleda; Amanda: Ana Puche;
Nekrotzar: Werner Van Mechelen; Astradamors: Frode Olsen; Mescalina: Ning Liang;
Venus/Gepopo: Barbara Hannigan; Prince Go-Go: Brian Asawa; White Minister:
Francisco Vas; Black Minister: Simon Butteriss; Ruffiak: Gabriel Diap; Schablack: Miquel Rosales; Schabernack: Ramon Grau
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Michael Boder
Stage Direction: Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) in collaboration with Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer: Alfons Flores; Video: Franc Aleu; Costume Designer: Lluc Castells;
Lighting Designer: Peter van Praet; Chorus Master: José Luís Basso; Video Director: Xavi Bové
A co-production of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opera di Roma, and English National Opera
rec. live from Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain, November 2011
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108 058 BLU-RAY [122:00 + 42:00 (bonus material)]
Ligeti’s sole opera, La Grand Macabre, was by all accounts his most ambitious work and one that gave him the most heartburn, at least concerning the staging of it. He composed the opera between 1974 and 1977 and the first performance took place in Stockholm in Swedish on 12 April 1978. The opera was based on a 1934 play in French by the little known Belgian, Michel de Ghelderode, and the libretto was written by the composer in collaboration with Michael Meschke in German and Swedish. The first production was counted a success, which of course pleased Ligeti greatly. La Grand Macabre would receive more than twenty different stagings during the next two decades, though Ligeti was not satisfied to varying degrees with any of them. He found they misrepresented his conception of the play and his adaptation of it. He also decided that the opera needed revising and he pruned much spoken dialogue and strengthened the musical element. He also now felt that the work should be performed in the vernacular. He revised the opera in 1996 and that is the version performed now. There is a recording of the original version in German on Wergo conducted by Elgar Howarth whom Ligeti requested to conduct it. Then in 1997 Peter Sellars staged the revised version with a cast conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. According to Richard Steinetz in his highly regarded study of the composer, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, Sellars completely distorted the work by staging it in a “post-nuclear” setting, with a stage design like some lunar landscape. Ligeti disowned the production, though he highly approved of the musical performance that was conducted by Salonen. It is this production from a performance in Paris in 1998 that is preserved on CD as part of Sony’s Ligeti Edition. It can be considered a definitive performance, if only as an audio version. The opera, however, cries out for video and that’s where this new production comes in. It is the first representation on DVD and Blu-ray of the opera.
The opera takes place in a fictional Brueghelland, based on the Gothic paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and also Hieronymous Bosch, during anytime-no particular period is indicated. Into this land, the figure of Death, the Grim Reaper, referred to as the Grand Macabre, one Nekrotzar, comes to announce the end of the world at midnight. The staging for the production here distorts what Ligeti envisioned by substituting a large fiberglass female torso for the graveyard of the original libretto. The torso, which is based on a real person, the singer Claudia Schneider, serves the function of providing entrances and exits for all of the characters through the openings of her orifices including the nipples of her breasts. She in fact is at the center of the action. With special lighting effects, she changes color and shape-at one point turning into a skeleton and at another merging into the starry sky of the universe. She even is set on fire at the end of the second scene. While very impressive by herself, this human torso can also detract from the actors and the action taking place on and around her.
The opera is divided into two acts and each has two scenes, though these run together with only orchestral interludes separating them. After a prelude performed by car horns, the opera opens with a sort of narrator, the drunken Piet the Pot, who is more of an observer than anything else, though he Nekrotzar soon turns him into his slave. Piet the Pot observes a pair of lovers who engage in sexual encounters and who are both portrayed by female singers, though one is supposed to be a man, Amando (Spermando in Ligeti’s original version) and the other a woman, Amanda (Clitoria in the first version). As staged here they have a sort of unisex appeal as both are “costumed” in reddish costumes that represent the human muscular system. They have the most traditional music in the opera in that it is actually lyrical and beautifully sung. Most of the other characters declaim their parts with a combination of singing and speaking, parlando rather than Sprechstimme, in the German sense. Nekrotzar makes his entrance in the opera by descending from the torso’s mouth. His appearance is quite unworldly, as he is dressed in a white suit and is completely bald but with his nerves showing at the back of his head. There is something very cold and unreal about him. His costume is supposed to represent the nervous system.
The second scene of the first act is devoted to the sadomasochistic behavior of the astronomer Astradamors and his terrifying wife Mescalina. He is cross-dressed, in women’s underwear, while she has on a costume that reveals her sagging breasts that only adds to her decadence. After tiring of him, Mescalina falls asleep and dreams that the goddess Venus will send her a “well hung” man. In this scene Piet the Pot returns and recognizes his old friend Astradamors. Venus appears at the top of the torso, as a very feminine figure with long, blond hair and wearing a pink tulle costume with long hair-like fringes. She answers Mescalina by providing her Nekrotzar to fill the bill of her masculine ideal. At this point the whole ensemble are singing their different parts simultaneously in a rather ingenious chorus. As the scene ends, Piet, Astradamors, and Nekrotzar see a comet that portends the end of the world and the torso is set aflame.
The second act begins with another prelude, this time on doorbells. The first scene shifts to the palace of the Prince Go-Go and is introduced by the prince’s ministers, one white and the other black. For this production the black minister is wearing a blue suit and the white one, a red suit-representing the veins and arteries of the circulatory system. The ministers have a catalogue duet of name-calling where they go through the alphabet and come up with words or phrases for each letter. It is interesting that in this production they use much stronger profanity (as is also the case elsewhere) than in the 1998 Paris production from which the Salonen recording was taken. Indeed, there are changes in the characters’ lines throughout the libretto in the new version, though both are based on the opera’s revision. There is much humor, some of it scatological, in this duet. One of the funniest though, is for the letter “t” where they come up with “toilet brush” and each holds up said item. The ministers treat their prince with due derision. He is a rather rotund figure, reminding me more than a little of humpty-dumpty, and is cast with a soprano voice, sung here as in other productions by a counter-tenor. Use of the counter-tenor could easily be viewed as a parody of Handel’s operatic heroes. When he asks for his horse, he is supposed to get only a rocking-horse (according to the libretto). In this production, however, the “rocking-horse” turns out to be a large rubber ball with two nipple-like protuberances. The ministers make Prince Go-Go wear a crown that looks like a cage and that hurts the prince’s head. Into this scene via the large torso part of which now appears as “her” intestines arrives the chief of the secret police, Gepopo. This role is played by a female dressed in a green military suit with helmet and she soon takes charge. Gepopo’s part is scored for a high soprano and is the same singer as in the part of Venus. As Gepopo, the singer has coloratura or rather hyper-exaggeration of coloratura solos that go on and on. It is a real virtuoso role and takes a superb actor as well as singer. Barbara Hannigan who does the part here extremely well has made a specialty of this type of singing in Ligeti, as she has performed in the Aventures,Nouvelles Aventures, and Mysteries of the Macabre on numerous occasions. (I was fortunate to hear her in these works in New York several years ago at an all-Ligeti concert.) Other police join Gepopo on stage while the offstage chorus sings “our great leader” over and over, “extolling” the prince. Netkrotzar, Piet the Pot, and Astradamors reappear Nekrotzar proclaims the end of the world, but Piet and Astradamors get him drunk on wine (Nekrotzar thinks it is blood!).
In the last scene Piet and Astradamors awaken and imagine they have gone to heaven, while Nekrotzar also wakes up from his drunken state and is disappointed that the world has not ended. He starts to shrivel up until he completely disappears. The other characters begin to appear on stage and by the end of the opera they have all returned and sing the moral of the story that no one knows when his or her hour will come. One might as well enjoy life and be merry! Before the end of the opera Ligeti inserts a beautiful mirror canon played by the strings that depicts the sunrise and Nekrotzar’s demise. Ligeti ends the opera with an ingenious passacaglia sung by Amando and Amanda and joined finally by the other singers. 
For his opera, Ligeti has borrowed from older music forms and operatic conventions and quoted or referred to such diverse themes as Offenbach’s Can-can and the bass line opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. As Steinitz points out in his book, it is surprising how little the composer uses his best-known stylistic devices from the 1960s and 70s, such as micro-polyphony. Rather he looks backward to some of his earlier works, for example, Musica ricercata, and the opera also looks forward to his later music. In this sense, the Le Grand Macabre is a transitional work. It was his only completed attempt at opera, but he planned to compose another one on his favorite Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to accomplish this dream. What he produced, however, is one of the greatest theatrical works of the late 20th Century: an opera that contains several layers of meaning. It is farce, theater of the absurd, but also biting political satire. Ligeti of course had suffered greatly under both Nazism and Communism and so found political satire a logical theme for his opera. At the same time, the opera is a morality tale much as Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is, with the moral clearly stated at the end of the work.
This production has divided critics and they have either praised it or panned it. One wonders what Ligeti himself would have made of it. As mentioned earlier, he was not satisfied to varying degrees with any of the productions of his work. I found it to be very convincing and entertaining, for the most part, and appropriate to the opera’s story-unlike the travesty that Martin Kušej and the Bavarian State Opera perpetrated on Dvořák’s Rusalka. I cannot imagine this particular staging of Le Grand Macabre being done any better than the production mounted here. As for the singing and orchestral playing, both are also top-notch. The singers, without exception, are superb in their roles, with special mention to Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo and Brian Asawa as Prince Go-Go. The orchestra features its percussion section with all kinds of unusual “instruments,” including pots and pans and crockery in addition to the car horns and doorbells that depict the sounds of the outside world. All of these sound effects are produced mechanically rather than electronically. The brass and strings also require real virtuosity, and the Barcelona orchestra does not disappoint-though there are places where Salonen’s Philharmonia sounds a bit more secure in the Sony audio recording. My only disappointment is that the viewer does not get to see the orchestra performing its preludes with the car horns and doorbells. Instead the scenes begin with a video of the real Claudia Schneider who thinks she is dying. The videos then merge seamlessly into the enormous “Claudia” torso for the stage setting. At the end of the opera, the production again reverts to the video with Claudia flushing the toilet. I could have done without that.
A real bonus is the lengthy documentary, “Fear to Death,” on the making of the opera by the stage directors, Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco; set designer, Alfons Flores; and costume designer, Lluc Castells. They go into great detail on the creation of the Claudio torso and on the various costumes and their relationship to the systems of the human body. There are subtitles for the documentary as well, since the discussion is conducted in Spanish. In addition to this documentary, there is a much shorter interview in German with the conductor, Michael Boder, who explains the musical aspects of the opera. As in the case of other Blu-rays, trailers of other opera productions are included as well. I have not seen the DVD version of this production, but I can say that the Blu-ray, both in sound and picture leaves nothing to be desired. Both are crisp and clear.
For me this is one of the most important discs yet issued this year. It is certainly one of the best that I have had the pleasure to review. As it is the only option for this opera on DVD or Blu-ray, it is self-recommending. Viewers should be warned, however, that the nearly pornographic production may be disturbing and some may find it downright appalling. For those, I would recommend sticking with Salonen’s audio recording until a different production comes along. The two versions are different enough that I am happy to have both in my collection.
Leslie Wright 

An important addition to the Ligeti discography and a first on video.