Switzerland Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre: Soloists and Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Tito Ceccherini (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 3.2.2019. (CCr)
Director – Tatjana Gürbaca
Set Designer – Henrik Ahr
Costumes – Barbara Drosihn
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger
Choir director – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn
Amanda – Alina Adamski
Amando – Sinéad O’Kelly
Piet vom Fass – Alexander Kaimbacher
Nekrotzar – Leigh Melrose
Astradamors – Jens Larsen
Mescalina – Sarah Alexandra Hudarew
Venus/Chief of the Gepopo – Eir Inderhaug
Prince Gogo – David Hansen
Black Minister – Oliver Widmer
White Minister – Martin Zysset
What a night of mixed reactions. The couple to my left sat stone-faced, the couple in front of me were enraptured, and the woman on my right stood up in the middle of the opera and started singing along; granted, she was planted there, along with the rest of the choir. Even with the choir, there were more unsold seats than is standard for Zurich, and at the end the applause was copious but not emotional. But the audience’s respect for this opera was real. Who are these strange creatures, devotees of György Ligeti amidst the beau monde of Zurich? Listening to a recording of Le Grand Macabre, or reading the plot synopsis, won’t much help you find an answer. The piece is a zany mess, and seen from a distance it’s as hideous as its subject matter. Get close enough, though, and the brilliance gets under your skin.
Here’s a broad outline of the plot, which is told most bracingly (the whole opera lasts two hours) in a string of four somewhat clumsy tableaux. Unto a little realm named after the medieval painter Breughel, Death (also known as Nekrotzar – the names are delicious in this opera) descends and announces the apocalypse. The village fool is neither very sober nor, honestly, very impressed, when he asks to be spared; Death’s answer is to enslave him. Meanwhile, the court astronomer’s wife (Mescalina) wants more sex, whereas the astronomer (Astradamor) just wants some more me-time, apocalypse be damned. So when the goddess Venus arrives – summoned angrily by the nymphomaniac Mescalina – and plays matchmaker between Mescalina and Death himself, Nekrotzar’s penetrating extends beyond his gaze. Mescalina, poor thing, is impaled. The widower Astradamor can go back to his navel-, err, star-gazing, but we in the audience are afforded no such break.
Ligeti’s music slices along, and now we are introduced to the local government: the limp Prince (sung in splendid falsetto by countertenor David Hansen), accompanied by his swindling ministers, and enough madness that you’d think Lewis Carroll and John Cleese had played hooky from their seminar on Samuel Beckett in order write this script for public access television. Nekrotzar, drunk, oversleeps the apocalypse he’d announced, and the little realm of Breughelland is left wondering why being dead seems suspiciously like being alive, though some make more of their non-death than others.
It’s an unholy pell-mell that Ligeti and librettist cooked up in 1978, when this opera (his only one) premièred in Stockholm. The good news is that the wordplay and rootedness in absurdist literary style are sublime. When’s the last time you heard the word ‘swag-pot’ in an opera? The bad news is that the music is sometimes agonisingly stop-and-go, which, paired with abstracted, contextless characters just dumped on the audience, can make for whole stretches of estranged stupefaction.
Very luckily, Tatjana Gürbaca, who directs, makes a stupendously good case for this opera. Her production is funny and strange and lean and smart. She and set designer Henrik Ahr kept the stage greyish-green, refrained from too many gags and gimmicks, and planted the story in a vague sort of industrial-bunker-moon-realm that lets Grand Macabre’s most philosophical ideation flourish. No colour was out of place, no costume made it easy to view a character complacently (Barbara Drosihn’s government ministers in trench coat and flannel were sly and icky), nor was there too little to look at, with a partially obscured Zeppelin, almost a submarine of the sky, sucking all the air out of the top of the stage.
Musically speaking, Tito Ceccherini, who conducted, brought a matter-of-fact richness to Ligeti’s music that would seem nigh impossible, given its junkyard of percussion and ice-cold snarls. Ligeti devotees were surely delighted, and even the uninitiated must have appreciated Ceccherini’s restraint. He never tried to make the music seem bigger than it was, and the few real moments of bombast were all the greater for it. Planting the choir in the audience, and getting its eruption to sound as bold as it did, was a major coup.
It is not an easy opera to sing. Countertenor David Hansen isn’t allowed any lyricism when playing a pipsqueak Prince, and baritone Leigh Melrose has to be barky and cheeky at the same time in the character of Death. Sarah Alexandra Hudarew, singing off-stage, had terrific venom in her voice as Mescalina, the nymphomaniac. Perhaps the greatest strength of this strong production is that Melrose and the rest of the cast are all utterly at home in this music. Gürbaca was clearly directing a crew of artists who could suss out the work’s intelligence and wit without any access to standard arias and opera personae. Two more pleasures: Gürbaca herself acted the role Mescalina when her mezzo fell ill, and was clearly having fun. Last but not least, the deadpan and boomy German Bass Jens Larsen, singing the astronomer, was particularly great to watch brood ridiculously; if Wotan were ever to appear on Vaudeville, Larsen would be perfectly cast.
Le Grand Macabre is an opera that deserves attention, though not entirely on its own merits alone. The theatre of it is an immense asset, posing Cold War questions that do not dip comfortably into political allegory or cheap symbolism. Keeping in mind that Ligeti composed only this opera, and churned through various compositional approaches before and after it, the work is begging for more peers.