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György LIGETI (1923-2006) Le Grande Macabre
Sibylle Ehler (soprano) - Venus: Gepopo
Laura Claycomb (soprano) - Amanda
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo soprano) - Amando
Jard van Nes (mezzo soprano) - Mescalina
Derek Lee Ragin (counter-tenor) - Prince Go-Go
Graham Clark (tenor) - Piet the Pot
Steven Cole (tenor) - White Minister
Richard Suart (baritone) - Black Minister
Willard White (bass-baritone) - Nekrotzar
Frode Olsen (bass) - Astradamors
Martin Winkler (baritone) - Ruffiack
Marc Campbell-Griffiths (baritone) - Schobiack
Michael Lessiter (baritone) - Schabernack
London Sinfonietta Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, 5-13 February 1998 SONY CLASSICS S2K62312 [43:12 + 59:15]
Ligeti’s only opera has been for some years the beast in the corner of the room that many think needs to be ushered back into its cage. It is exceptional and extraordinary. This recording captures its totally eccentric character, “warts and all”.
The opera exists in three versions. The first was composed between 1974 and 1977, and premiered in Stockholm to a bemused audience. Then came “Scenes and Interludes”, recorded in 1979 under Elgar Howarth, who had conducted the first complete performances which comes with the appropriate plotting and texts. (I have the LP on Wergo 60085 and Howarth’s complete recording of the opera is available on CD.) Then Ligeti revised the work in 1997, making both minor and major changes, for instance removing much of the spoken dialogue. All of this is explained in some detail in the booklet notes by the composer. This CD is a re-release of a live 1998 version made in the Théâtre du Châteletin Paris.
The plot is based on the play La Balade du Grand Macabre written in 1934 by Michel de Ghelderode. Michael Meschke freely adapted the text, working with the composer. It exists in Swedish, German and English. This recording is in the latter, and you will be glad, because no texts are provided, although there is a very detailed summary of each scene. This is very helpful, as the story is not only complex and bizarre but also funny, and audience laughter is heard periodically. It is also grotesque, musically in its orchestration and in the wide use of vocal techniques for each of the virtuoso performers. Indeed the composer admits that finding the right “stars” for the opera was major concern. The whole thing is like a Breughel painting or two come to life. If you have the LP, that is exactly what adorned its cover: “The Triumph of Death”.
Briefly, the plot is set in the world of “Bruegelland”, a totally run-down country ruled by a gaga and ineffective leader named Go-Go. If this is not bad enough, Nekrotzar appears. He is the opera’s sinister figure of a demagogue. After the hen-pecked Astradamors’s prediction, he persuades the country that a comet is to land at midnight and destroy them all so that they need to repent. He is proven to be an imposter. This is partially done by allowing him to think he drinks human blood when it is actually wine, in a marvellous drunken-orgy-type scene. But after midnight when everyone a wakes into what was the promised new world, it is found that nothing has changed. Now, there are various side characters like the lovers Amanda and Amando and the wonderful, bullying Mescalina, Astradamors’s gross wife, but that is, in outline, the basic plot, ending with a glorious passacaglia over which the lovers sing of reconciliation and the exhortation to “live merrily”.
The international cast are quite extraordinary and brilliant. They inhabit the characters and communicate the extreme demands of Ligeti’s almost impossible vocal agilities. I feel it would be invidious to single out any one of them. All in all, I favour these singers over those on Elgar Howarth’s 1979 recording, although the baritone Dieter Weller is totally memorable and amusing as Nekrotzar. Ligeti’s ability to orchestrate and to write down the exact sounds he imagined was the result of his own special language development, imagination and foresight into notation. As he admitted, his aim was to “distance myself from the ideal of nineteenth century opera”. The result you may consider extreme, surreal, even ugly at times. It is also harsh and blunt, but its uniquely Ligeti—a composer of considerable significance. The whole lot is controlled to seeming perfection by Esa-Peka Salonen, an ideal choice for the opera’s revival in 1998.
The recording was drawn out of a run of five performances, the best bits you might say. Although you cannot really “see the join”, I have found that I need to adjust the volume control quite often to pick out orchestral detail or the text. The latter task is made harder by the busy orchestration and vocal counterpoints.
If you do not know the opera, then in fairness either recording will serve its purpose, but I recommend that one of them should go into your library, even if only as an example of an extreme modern opera.