Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre shocks Rome but only mildly

It is also one of the contemporary operas
most frequently performed in Europe. LigÈti composed two different versions of
Le Grand Macabre — the former had its debut in Stockholm in
1978, the latter in Salzburg in 1997. The main difference is that the second
version replaces almost all the spoken parts with recitative. The production at
the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma (June 18-23) is a world-wide affair. It
started in Brussels a few months ago. From the Italian capital it will travel
to Sidney, Australia. In the fall, it will have a long spell at the English
National Opera in London and at the Liceu in Barcelona. It might go on to the
US and other major European opera houses in 2010.

It is a grand, and very costly, production organized by the Catalan Group La
Fura dels Baus , now very trendy — the Group has staged the entire
Ring in Florence and Valencia; and it is booked by La Scala for a new
production of Tann‰user, which will also be shown in Berlin and other
major houses.

Le Grand Macabre reaches Rome with a reputation of scandal and even
perversion. In January-February, the Brussels performances were well received
by the audience but a few reviewers — including The New York
— wrote about “debauchery” on stage. The new
management of the Teatro dell’Opera advertised that the production is
“for an adult audience”. At the opening nights, there were a few
boos at some sexually explicit moments in the opera (in particular in the
second scene of the first act) but the audience did not seem shocked. If it
did, it was a very mild shock. Rome has been for centuries the Babylon of
Europe and is accustomed to almost everything. There were several curtain
calls, but (as it is often the case when a modern opera is on stage) a few rows
and many boxes were empty.

Let us place Le Grand Macabre in its proper context. In his own
comments to the second version of the opera, LigÈti said that he initially
intended to compose a singspiel, but eventually he wrote a full opera because,
among other things, it is difficult to find singers equally good at singing,
acting and dancing. He also clarifies that, as a Hungarian, he was
well-acquainted with operetta. Finally, his main operatic sources of
inspiration were Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea
and Verdi’s Falstaff. In short, even though Le Grand
requires a huge orchestra and ten soloists, LigÈti thought of
something light (the duration of the two acts is around 100 minutes) and very
ironic. There are quotations from Verdi, Donizetti, Stravinsky, Mozart and, of
course, Monteverdi in both the vocal and the orchestral score, which add irony
to an otherwise late 20th century musical work (it is influenced by both the
German Darmstadt School and the French ICRAM School. Along with numerous
rhythmic orchestral passages, “declamation” slides easily into
“arioso” and “duets”.


Irony also arises in the text. Based on a Belgian play, it is an allegory.
In Bruegeland (a country based on Bruegel’s paintings), an asteroid is
about to destroy every living thing on the planet. As the news breaks that
death is near, the reaction of the populace is extreme sex (from the adolescent
sex of a vigorous couple of teen agers to sadomasochistic sex of the
Court’s astrologist and his wife). A few take up drinking, instead. The
second part takes place in the corridors of power. As death arrives, intrigue
and deception become pointless. Rather, it is better to join all in a crazy
dance (a wild 15th century “ciaccona”). Mr. Death is expected to do
all the killing and all the destroying, but finds more fun in joining the
humanity in extreme sex and wild dancing . Thus, Bruegeland’s last day is
postponed, perhaps forever.

In my opinion, La Fura dels Baus uses a very heavy hand in the stage
production that clashes with LigÈti’s sophisticated and elegant score.
The stage is dominated by a huge statue of woman in progressive decomposition
where the characters come out from very private parts of her body. Irony does
not seem to be a gift of the Catalan Group, even though, thanks to
LigÈti’s music, it is manifest in the second part (especially in the

The orchestra responds extremely well to Zolt·n PeskÛ’s conducting.
PeskÛ is a compatriot and long-time friend of LigÈti. He is thus, fully
equipped to show all the delicate nuances of the score. Chris Merritt has
completed his transition from Bellini and Rossini coloratura belcanto
to a high baritone for 20th century works. Brian Asawa is the best countertenor
now available world-wide. Sir Willard White is as imposing as ever. Nicholas
Isherwood is a master of early British music where it is quoted in the score.
Caroline Stein is now a veteran of the double role a sensual Venus and a cynic
Gepopo. Ning Liang is a vicious Nescalina. Annie Vavrille and Ilse Eerens are
just delightful as the amorous teenagers.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image_description=A scene from Le Grand Macabre
product_title=Gyˆrgy LigÈti: Le Grand Macabre
product_by=Piet the pot: Chris Merritt; Amando: Annie Vavrille; Amanda: Ilse Eerens; Nekrotzar: Sir Willard White /Roberto Abbondanza; Astradamors: Nicholas Isherwood; Mescalina: Ning Liang; Venus: Caroline Stein; Prince Go-Go: Brian Asawa; White Minister: Eberhard Francesco Lorenz; Black Minister: Martin Winkler; Gepopo: Caroline Stein. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Dell’opera. Maestro concertatore e Direttore: Zolt·n PeskÛ. Maestro del Coro: Andrea Giorgi. Ideazione: Alex OllË (La Fura dels Baus) & Valentina Carrasco. Regia: Alex OllË.
product_id=Above: A scene from Le Grand Macabre