MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.