Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre (LSO, 2017)

György Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

London Symphony Orchestra, 2017

Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, Peter Hoare, Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Watts, Pavlo Hunka, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Christian Valle, Fabian Langguth, Benson Wilson

Barbican Hall, London - 14th January 2017

Maybe it's just a reflection of the strange times we are living in, but György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre actually seemed to make a lot of sense in this timely semi-staged version of the composer's difficult and absurd anti-anti-opera. If anything the world has become even more absurd than Ligeti could ever have imagined in these post-truth, hard Brexit leaning times, a week away from Donald Trump becoming the President of the USA. Honestly, the goings-on on the stage at the Barbican made more sense and were more credible than last night's news. Truly, it seems that we are now living in Breughelland.

That's a tribute really to Peter Sellars, a director who has worked with Ligeti and who was instrumental in convincing the composer to work on the revised 1997 version of Le Grand Macabre, but it's also to the credit of Simon Rattle and the LSO, who unexpectedly turned a concert performance of this work into a revelatory experience. A semi-staged performance barely seems adequate for this work, nor does a serious treatment of it seem appropriate, but remarkably the comic absurdity and difficult music produced what turned out to be a meaningful, invigorating and thought-provoking experience at the first of its brief run of two performances at the Barbican.

The challenges of performing Le Grand Macabre, not to mention the relatively small specialised audience that it would appeal to, mean that we don't often get a chance to see this opera staged. If you were to rely solely on the most recent UK production of the work directed by La Fura dels Baus at the Coliseum, you would likely then only have a view of one side of the work where the emphasis is on the irreverence, the surreal, the vulgarity and the spectacle and it's unlikely that you would really have connected with any of the deeper content or message in the work. Sellars and Rattle show however that there is another side to Le Grand Macabre, many sides even, and in the process they show why consideration of a variety of interpretations of any work of art is important.

If there was one essential element or key theme in Le Grand Macabre that the La Fura dels Baus production and Peter Sellars share, it's the idea of the opera taking place in an apocalyptic end-of-times moment. Hence its absurdity. It's no surprise either that for Peter Sellars - who has collaborated with John Adams as the librettist for Doctor Atomic - the expression of that apocalyptic theme takes the form of us being on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. As Ligeti and his family experienced some of the worst horrors of the Holocaust and the Cold War, this is certainly a theme that is present as a dark undercurrent to the work.

There's not a lot of stage dressing needed to make this theme apparent in a semi-staged version. There are a couple of barrels of glowing toxic nuclear waste to both sides of the stage, but most of the context is relayed through screen projections at the back of the stage. Nick Hillel's video footage and projections are not just the familiar imagery you might expect, although mushroom clouds are certainly shown and there is footage of the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, but there is also a certain amount of humour at the irony and the horror of the nuclear arms race, a tone that is entirely appropriate within the context of Ligeti's work.

The realisation that it's all madness and that death is just around the corner seems to come to nuclear corporate executive Piet the Pot while doing a presentation for 'Clean Futures' at a Nuclear Energy Summit (London - Berlin 2017). He's taken a few drinks to steady himself for presenting something he presumably no longer believes in, so the combination of stage nerves and the alcohol seems to play havoc with the reality that he sees around him. The words of his colleagues in white lab coats, Armando and Armanda, seems suddenly suggestive and erotically inclined towards death, while his boss seems to materialise before his eyes in the form of Nekrotzar, Le Grand Macabre.

There are limits to how far you can take that kind of absurdity with all Ligeti's accompanying unconventional and often atonal music, and it's particularly difficult to sustain such a relatively thin premise across four scenes. The message, you would think, has been made abundantly clear very quickly indeed and the second scene between the astrologer Astradamors and his wife Mescalina seems to have little to add to the absurd situation. Nekrotzar's assumption of Astradamors' marital duties - carried out via the emotional distancing of an on-line chatroom here - is hammered home at the end of Act II with a map of the world being blasted with an infographics display of all the nuclear bombs that have been detonated since 1945. It's horrifying to imagine the damage that must have been inflicted not only on the the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in those first bombs, but also the scale of the cumulative environmental impact of such tests.

It's the quality of the work itself and its deeper meaning that reasserts itself in the second half, or rather it is assertively deployed by Sellars, Rattle, the LSO and an exceptional cast of singers. Geoffrey Skelton's English translation also makes a stronger impression when it has been placed in this context, the libretto's nonsense verse, wordplay, alliteration and invention revealed to be very clever and witty, revelling in the absurdity of all the madness and death of Nekrotzar's war machine. Witty and inclined to make you laugh, but not in itself laughable. This is a deadly serious business and seen in the light of where we stand now - god help us - Ligeti's stance seems to be the only irrational response towards it.

The key factor in carrying the work through to its dark meditations is unquestionably the performance of Audrey Luna in Scene III as Gepopo the Chief of the Secret Police. In semi-staged concert performance, there wasn't perhaps the ability to present Gepopo in his three disguises as bird of prey, a spider and an octopus, but all the colour and drama in this character were brilliantly expressed and conveyed by Luna, strapped down into a bed on the stage, singing directly into a camera that projected her performance at the back of the stage. In combination with Anthony Roth Costanzo's beautiful countertenor Prince Go-Go it created an extraordinary impression, Luna's stratospheric babblings more intelligible and coherent than the average Donald Trump speech.

The same level of commitment was evident throughout a work that is filled with singing and dramatic challenges. The LSO assembled an impressive cast here for these performances at the Barbican, with Heidi Melton deserving mention for the particularly difficult Mescalina, Frode Olsen fearlessly pushing the depths of the bass role as Astradamors and Pavlo Hunka an imposing presence as Nekrotzar. There were some gorgeous lyrical moments from the combined singing of Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts as Armando and Amando, contrasting terrifically with Peter Hoare's gradual derangement and disintegration as Piet the Pot. Sellars also made great use of the whole Barbican Hall for the chorus, with individual musicians and singers popping up on all of the levels, ensuring a surround sound experience that included the audience as citizens of Brueghelland.

What the semi-staged concert performance permitted above all else however was that it literally places Ligeti's music centre stage, and that was nothing less than revelatory. It's very easy for the true nature of Ligeti's music for Le Grand Macabre to get lost in all the absurdity so that it sound like nothing but wildly diverse and fractured accompanying noise, with atonal parodies of Beethoven and other forms of music, but Simon Rattle and the LSO showed how consistent and of-a-piece the music is. Its little miniatures are expressive of the moment, alternately skittish and playful, darkly reflective or shrilly terrifying, but they all contribute to the greater impact and rich tone of the work in its totality.

It's hard to say that it's Ligeti's greatest work, but Le Grand Macabre is certainly his most sustained and demanding piece; richly dynamic, a compendium of all the extravagance, experimentation, absurdity and inventiveness that are characteristic of the composer. In the form of this opera and in the light of where we are today, the dark undercurrents from Ligeti's personal experiences that inspire the themes of Le Grand Macabre now suddenly seem all too apparent and relevant.

Links: LSO, Peter Sellars talks Le Grand Macabre