ETA 6th December 2019:
Rewatching Le Grand Macabre after four years has rather changed my opinion. It still seems weird and sometimes hard to watch but I think I see a certain logic in it now that completely escaped me before. So the End of the World is approaching and all the Powers that Be can do is squabble, exchange scatological insults and get very, very drunk while the one sane (if rather weird) character (Gepopo) can’t find a language to communicate the enormity of what’s happening to them. Sound vaguely familiar? (Coincidentally, I’m writing this on the day that Andrew Scheer said that the Federal Government should give more heroin to the addicts in Alberta because otherwise they’ll get in a snit). Of course, in Ligeti’s version Death gets so drunk that he screws up terminating the space-time continuum but we probably won’t be so lucky. So yes the fart jokes and the raccoon on bins orchestra is still there but it now seems to me in service of something rather more profound than I previously gave it credit for. Also, Hannigan is not just brilliant vocally. It’s also, even by her standards, an amazing physical performance. (Original review under the cut).
I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a copy of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre for a while and I really expected to enjoy or, at least, admire it. It is, after all, one of the most performed of late 20th century operas and has had some thirty different productions including, most recently, one by La Fura dels Baus recorded at the Liceu in 2011 and also seen at ENO. It’s supposed to be a sort of post apocalyptic satire on pretty much everything but, in poking fun at everything, it ends up saying nothing. It’s also extremely scatological with hardly an English obscenity not used at least once in the libretto. The music, too, while occasionally entering into the realm of fairly funny parodies of well known composers is mostly a mixture of bangs, shrieks, gurgles and farts. Overall it’s like watching a two hour episode of The Two Ronnies accompanied by a band of raccoons with dustbins.
Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco headed up the design and direction team and drew their visual inspiration from a combination of Breughel and the hyper-realistic oversized human sculptures of Ron Mueck. So, a sort of apocalyptic chaos is layered onto a set consisting of a giant sized naked woman with characters entering and exiting via the many convenient orifices provided. It would be tedious to describe the staging at length so a couple of vignettes will have to do. In the second scene the sage, Astradamors, gamely played by Frode Olsen looking like Slartibartfast in a pink onesie, is chased over the giant naked woman by his wife Mescalina (Ning Liang) who wears fake saggy tits and oversized fake genitals and carries a large whip. Equally edifying is the scene where the two ministers to Prince Go-Go emerge from the butt crack to compete in an alphabetical swearing contest. I’m pretty broad minded, I think, but this was just crass.
The music too is quite hard to take. It does have its moments, especially towards the end of the piece, but much of the time, as conductor Michael Boder explains, it’s as if Ligeti wants it to sound as if a bunch of kids had got hold of the orchestra’s instruments and are trying to see how much racket they can create. That said, the vocal music is fiendishly difficult; especially the ultra high coloratura roles of Venus and the secret police chief Gepopo, both brilliantly sung by Barbara Hannigan. There are fine performances too from Chris Merritt as the drunken wine taste Piet the Pot and Werner Van Mechelen as Nekrotzar aka Le Grand Macabre aka Death. But really, for all their technical excellence it’s hard to care.
Video direction is by Xavi Bové and it’s pretty reasonable. There’s enough chaos on stage not to need much help from the video director! The picture and sound (Dolby 5.1) quality on DVD is good rather than spectacular. There are 40+ minutes of interviews with the creative team which are worth at least dipping into though they aren’t especially enlightening. The booklet was missing from my copy so who knows? Subtitle options are English (the performance language on this recording), Italian, French, Spanish, Catalan and Korean.
Not my thing but your mileage may differ and this production does seem to represent the piece fairly faithfully.