Composed in the 70s and updated in the 90s, Ligeti’s only opera (or anti-anti-opera, as he liked to describe it) was intended to reference both operatic and anti-operatic traditions, to be a little shocking, absurdist yet thought-provoking, and to deal in an unusually blunt manner with the age-old themes of sex and death. The characters are generally archetypal (e.g. Nekrotzar, death embodied in human form, complete with scythe, and Venus, goddess of love/sex, flying pinkly around on a wire) or deliberately one-dimensional (e.g. Piet, who is drunk, Amanda and Amando – originally named Clitoria and Spermando – who have sex a lot, Mescalina the dom wife and Astradamors the sub husband, etc.), and the plot minimal: Nekrotzar turns up, announces that Armageddon is scheduled for midnight, and watches the characters’ reaction to the news of their imminent death. Which appears to involve mostly getting drunk, bickering and having sex, so much the same as before, then. Oh, and going to a disco.
Without narrative drive or compelling protagonists, great demands are put on the production, and fortunately this production excelled. The famous opening for 12 car-horns was accompanied by a huge video projection of a woman, ‘Claudia’, surrounded by the detritus of an extremely unhealthy diet and lifestyle, who appears to have a heart attack. As she leans forwards in distress, the screen raises to be replaced with a huge sculpture of the woman, crouched down yet filling the stage, on, around and in whom the action takes place. Although Ligeti intended his ‘characters’ to inhabit the imaginary country of Breughelland rather than the body of a sick (or perhaps dead) woman, the concept worked well. It was also extremely effective visually; even a giant naked woman who opens up in various places for actors to enter and exit can cease to hold the attention after a short while, but every scene brought new and unexpected changes to the model – her head and eyes swiveled, her expression changed (through clever video projection) as she reacted to the words being sung, she aged, her skeleton was revealed (the image rotating precisely to match the physical rotation of the model), and at one point she appeared to disintegrate. Her torso contained intestines and a pelvic bone, but also the Countdown-to-Armageddon disco.
Dramatically, the Claudia sculpture was the star, and ironically was able to convey human emotion much more successfully than any of the live characters. I do not wish to criticise the singers’ acting abilities, as I am sure they were doing just what they were asked to; however, what they were asked to do was generally a huge amount of hamming, groping, staggering around, and inept slapstick. It generally succeeded in being ridiculous without being funny, as did the staggeringly unattractive costumes in which many were attired. Lucky Astradamors (Frode Olsen) got to spend the entire opera in pink ladies’ underwear and thigh-boots, while Mescalina (Susan Bickley) sported a pair of exposed floppy prosthetic breasts which drooped down to her waist. The Prince’s steed was a space hopper, which in keeping with the whole body-theme had been painted to resemble a giant bouncy bollock. Some of the costumes, though, were more interesting choices, such as the two lovers’ body-suits which made it look like they had no skin and could twine and twang eachothers’ muscles and tendons, or the goddess Venus depicted, yeti-like, as being covered all over in long hair (bubblegum-pink). I found myself quite discomfited by the character ‘Black Minister’ being made up in blackface, to the extent that I didn’t laugh at the list of playground insults that he and the White Minister bawl at each other. Come to think of it, two men on a stage yelling ‘asslicker’, ‘fistfucker’ etc. isn’t actually that funny in the first place, although presumably the composer and librettist thought so.
I had not heard this piece before, apart from a few brief excerpts, and perhaps should get to know it better before forming a definite opinion; however, on first hearing I found it quite unsatisfying. Ligeti’s genius is particularly in the realm of timbre, and his unique combination of extreme chromaticism, complex micropolyphony and arhythmic temporal structures shines through most effectively in large-scale, slow-changing pieces and passages. These were all present in Le Grand Macabre, but my reaction was often one of frustration, as the patchwork of frequently-changing musical styles meant that the passages I found beautiful did not last long enough, and were broken in upon by much more angular, disjointed melodic and harmonic lines which, while certainly not unpleasant, failed to move me in the same way. Frances Bourne (Amando) and Rebecca Bottone (Amanda) had a crystalline purity in the long legato lines of their amorous duets, and Susanna Anderson’s vocal gymnastics (often accompanied by physical gymnastics) were particularly impressive in the two contrasting roles of languorous Venus and the hysterical Chief of the Secret Police. In general, the men fared less well – not through any technical fault, I hasten to add, but because they were so frequently required to squeal or growl at often uncomfortable-sounding extremes of pitch. Although Ligeti can most certainly write well for voices, I found I did not appreciate much of the vocal writing in this piece, and for the most part found the instrumental sections the most enjoyable. The orchestral playing was, without exception, excellent, and conducted insightfully and with great precision and authority by Baldur Brönnimann, assisted by Robert Houssart somewhere up near the roof with a small wind ensemble. Of particular note were the lower brass (happily including contrabass trombone and monstrous contrabass tuba), the percussion section (for coping with such an astonishing array of instruments and implements), and the on-stage musos in the orchestral interlude in Scene 3 (piccolo, Eb clarinet, bassoon, and a scordatura violin slyly referencing Danse Macabre).
And how does it all end, you may perhaps wonder? At the disco (in Claudia’s stomach), Piet and Astradamors get harbinger of doom Nekrotzar pissed off his face, and he misses his midnight deadline to end the world. Piet and Astra, for once, get something pleasant to sing, as they ponder whether they are ghosts, but it turns out they are all alive after all and just hungover, at which point they start off on the lash again. Except that they don’t, because they are not real, as we are reminded by a final video of Claudia on the toilet. It seems it wasn’t a heart attack she suffered, just an upset stomach, and after expelling Piet and the rest, she finally smiles.