Opera, anti-opera, or anti-anti-opera? Whichever it is, Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s only one, and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to hear this work performed. With Simon Rattle heading up the LSO and a cast of top-class singers the musical realisation presented here is wonderful, as to be expected. The percussion section of the LSO dominated the stage (spatially and metaphorically) throughout with calm virtuosity. Musical and comic timing combined to send up the absurdity of modern life through the infamous car-horn fanfares and masterful execution of Ligeti’s challenging and diverse score.
Every member of the cast was impressive vocally. Ligeti makes huge demands on his singers, writing across and beyond conventional ranges to require sopranos to rattle more than a fifth below middle C, and basses to soar above their soprano duettists’ familiar tessitura. Frode Olsen as Astradamors merits special praise for particularly amazing acrobatics, stretching the lower ends of our pitch perception with solid, shuddering bass notes that beggared belief contrasted with tender and emotive tone in what would generally be considered high tenor or alto range.
The only peculiarity of this presentation is the ambiguity of its staging. As the LSO fills the Barbican stage, the dramatis personae have limited space in which to deliver the action. Physical movement is limited and props are minimal, not always to best effect. Sellars has chosen to use Ligeti’s intended burlesque-like “flea-market” into a sterile and slightly contrived nuclear emergency situation. The lack of set and the disembodiment of the action resulting from sharing the stage with the orchestra is compensated for by video projections. However I found these to be distracting, confusing and surplus to requirements, especially in the first half. A particularly awkward and random montage appeared to show international leaders shaking hands, with this short slice of action looped several times. Bearing no relation to the action in Ligeti’s work and not portraying any of the main characters, it was a confusing and frankly unwelcome distraction from the music and action onstage. There were some effective moments with videography in the second half, including projections of onstage characters and chilling maps of nuclear explosions driving home the apocalyptic and political messages of The Grand Macabre. On the whole I would have preferred this to have been dropped. Humour, intensity and the quality of relationships were lost, particularly between Mescalina and Astradamors as their BDSM interactions were awkwardly transposed to the context of a web exchange. Despite sensual and emotionally charged singing from Watts and Miller, removing physical interaction from the equation of Amando and Amanda’s relationship would make sense only in a concert-style presentation of the music.
The stars of this presentation were the LSO and the voices. Surround-sound use of the concert-hall space was extremely effective, with the voice of Venus (solo and chorus) swelling from the uppermost balconies and the powerful London Symphony Chorus swelling in the aisles of the stalls as the people of Breughelland. The music penetrated the listener’s being – much of this is, of course, Ligeti’s genius. I was pleased to have the opportunity to experience it, and look forward to experiencing a full and perhaps more faithful staging before too long.