Le Grande Macabre, at the ENO

Breughel            The musical language of the 20thcentury hasn’t been congenial to comic opera. There have been attempts at the form, some of them perhaps successful. But there have been a lot of dead ends, too, including the absurdist non-sequitur style of John Cage’s Europeras, and the retrograde rehash style of John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. Cage’s operas started emerging in the late ‘80s, and Corigliano’s Ghosts, which he called a “grand opera buffa,” followed in 1991. The former—random juxtapositions of musical and dramatic elements—were a negation of opera, the later—a craven return to the supposed spirit of Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist of Mozart’s greatest works—a negation of the negation.

            Well before either of those empty gestures there was György Ligeti’s 1978 Le Grande Macabre, one of the essential works of 20th century opera history, and a comedy. It is a maddeningly difficult opera to find in America, but it just finished a wildly successful run at London’s English National Opera. As Richard Steinitz puts it in the program booklet, “Since its premiere in Stockholm in 1978, Le Grand Macabre has had twenty-five different productions in Europe and Scandinavia, plus one in America…” That pretty much sums up the state of the art on this side of the Atlantic. After watching this stunningly interesting production, I had a feeling of deep sadness about the opera world in the U.S. Even (especially) critics have become complacent.

            The ENO production is a collaboration with three other companies, and has already been seen in Brussels and Rome. It moves on next to Barcelona. The concept, design and direction is all the work of a radical theater cooperative called La Fura dels Baus, which staged the work on, in, around and atop a huge fiberglass cast of a naked woman. Detachable nipples provided hiding places for an amorous young couple. Her vulva was used frequently as an entrance and exit. The opera, and the production, are wildly ribald, often obscene, hysterically funny and, in the end, rather touching.

            I’m a skeptic when it comes to the excesses of regietheater, which has become simply conventional theater practice by another name. But Ligeti’s opera and La Fura dels Baus’s style are perfectly matched. The libretto is a series of loosely connected scenes, unified by the presence of the Grande Macabre, a grim-reaper figure who has come to destroy the world. Inhabiting the wide open spaces around this loose narrative are sad and tragic figures, vindictive wives, craven husbands, corrupt politicians, narcissistic rulers and indifferent young love birds, all drawn from the spirit of paintings by Breughel. The setting is “Breughelland.” There is murder, mayhem and sadism, and the whole spectacle takes place under a very 1970s sense of imminent thermonuclear doom. Ligeti’s work cries out for theatrical excess, and La Fura dels Baus provides.

            So where, in this dark recipe, is the comedy? There is plenty of grim and profane slapstick in the first three scenes of this four-part opera. But the real comedy, the comedy that connects this work to deep, philosophical comedy of Shakespeare and Mozart, is in the ending. The Grande Macabre, a.k.a. Nektrotzar, drinks to excess, and forgets his mission. The world is left undestroyed, which is about as much old-fashioned comic resolution as we can expect in our troubled, post-Hiroshima world. We are all, in a sense, survivors of a catastrophe that has yet to happen (which is also the theme of Elliott Carter’s 1999 opera, “What Next?”). The comedy is intellectual and spiritual, leading, in the end, to a marriage of Man to his existential condition, a reconciliation which is summed up in one of the more transcendent moments: “Fear not to die, good people all!”

          Death will come, when we know not. So: “Farewell till then, live merrily in cheerfulness!” And what of that cheerfulness? In Breughelland, just this: “We have a thirst, so we are living…” I drink, therefore I am. This isn’t Benny Hill and it isn’t a Hugh Grant romcom. It’s hard, flinty, sad, but ultimately liberating stuff.

          For all his efforts to undo the conventions of traditional opera, Ligeti knew the history and form well, and he deploys traditional elements subversively. Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, is a coloratura soprano, an interesting inversion of what we expect, but also a reference to the Queen of the Night, who is an inverted authority figure herself. The two lovers, whose search for a safe amorous refuge opens the opera, are both sung by women, in the tradition of Rosenkavalier, which was a throwback to earlier, Baroque conventions. And Prince Go-Go, a manic, preening figure who reveals the hollow nature of political power, is a countertenor, also in the tradition of Handel and earlier composers. These higher-lying roles, for some reason, brought out the best performances of the evening, including Susanna Andersson’s fearless Gepopo (and Venus too, in a bit of double casting), Frances Bourne’s Amando and Rebecca Bottone’s Amanda, and Andrew Watt’s Prince Go-Go.

            It all came together wonderfully well the night I attended, and though it’s not an opera you want to see every week or every year, it’s an opera that ought to be seen here. And the same can be said of the work of La Fura dels Baus. It’s hard to imagine what Metropolitan Opera audiences, offended by Luc Bondy’s new Tosca, would make of this Catalan theater troupe. But it would be fun watch.

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