Saturday 26 September 2009

Opera Spectacular - Ligeti's La Grand Macabre

It's not every day you go to the opera house to be greeted by a safety curtain emblazoned with a giant skull and crossbones. Still rarer for that curtain to rise to reveal a giant, naked female sculpture, crouched forward awkwardly and occupying the majority of the stage.

Then again, Ligeti isn't an everyday composer and La Grand Macabre certainly isn't an every day opera. The plot, such as it is, concerns the titular Nekrotzar, well sung by Pavlo Hunka, attempting to destroy the world with a comet. During the course of this we see a variety of decadence and depravity.

From a technical standpoint it is one of the more impressive opera productions I've seen. The statue's leg slides open here to reveal a dining room table complete with live chickens, people appear from various orifices there. The blank white sculpture is frequently brought to life with vivid projections - the most clever of which shows the skeleton, appearing perfectly as though a three dimensional x-ray were being performed, more amazingly still, this is maintained as it rotates (I'd love to know exactly how they did that).

Musically too things are of a high calibre with the orchestra of English National Opera on fine form under the baton of Baldur Bronnimann. And they need to be. Legiti's score is an absolute marvel: from the fabulous brass fanfares, often discordant, that permeate the work to the stunning drums that punctuate so much of the action, they do not miss a beat. The composer also impresses in quieter moments, such as the surreal scene in which two of the characters float above the stage, believing themselves to be ascending to heaven. Add to this the off-stage brass and tolling bell, and it was a special listening experience

The cast is solid too, displaying good acting as well as singing, Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone playing lovers Amando and Amanda stand out, so too Susan Bickley's dominatrix housewife and Susanna Andersson's dual turn as Venus and the chief of the secret police. Similarly the men, from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's drunken Piet the Pot, to the henpecked astronomer Astradamors (Frode Olsen). Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss do well as the black and white ministers, as does Andrew Watts as Prince Go-Go.

An unqualified success then. Well, actually, no. Dramatically speaking it isn't completely compelling. For a start, none of the characters illicit the slightest emotional sympathy. I suspect that's part of the point, but the fact remains that I never really engage with them or care terribly much what becomes of them. If it's intended as a scathing satire on society, such sympathy shouldn't matter. The trouble is that it doesn't really stack up on this count. To be sure there's plenty of sex and debauchery going on, yet it manages never to be erotic (save for musically, where Ligeti's aria for Amando and Amanda's intercourse is rather special) nor is it particularly shocking. This despite people emerging from every part of the 'body' imaginable. Similarly, while there are some funny moments to the libretto, these are too few and far between; a scene where the two ministers hurl abuse at each other is rather tame by modern standards.

The production may be over the top, but one has to wonder how dramatically compelling it would be if it wasn't. However, this is a problem because the staging, and the reaction, at times actually get in the way of enjoyment of that sumptuous and inventive score. Indeed, more than once I found myself wondering what it would be like to hear a concert performance.

Nonetheless, it was a new and different experience, enjoyable and thoroughly recommendable.

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