Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre Import
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It seems oddly fitting that 1999--a year marked by Y2K paranoia and doom-and-gloom trainspotters--is the year in which Sony chose to release this brilliantly charged version of György Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre, the Hungarian master's comic tale of apocalypse and "what me worry?" Originally composed between 1975 and 1977, Macabre follows the various bumbling citizens of "Breughelland" during "anytime." Problem is, their time is about to end, thanks to grim reaper Nekrotzar (played with deadpan grotesquerie by bass-baritone Willard White), who, aided by his bumbling servant Piet the Pot, has decided to lay waste to the world. Of course, nothing ever goes quite right. A pair of indistinguishable lovers (including the radiant mezzo of Charlotte Hellekant) sleeps right through the Armageddon, and the Great Macabre is reduced to asking himself, "Have I not just laid to waste the entire goddamned world?" in the hilarious final scene. Esa-Pekka Salonen's live recording zeroes in on the score's sardonic humor as well as its postmodern raidings. Compared to the first Macabre on disc--sung in German and not as compact as the revised, English version that Ligeti prepared for the 1997 Salzburg Festival revival--this one is the keeper, with better sound staging, wildly imaginative orchestrations, lucid program notes, and an enjoyably perky English rendition of the original text. Hearing all this perfect craziness--the townspeople mimicking a skipping record as they sing "Our Great Leader" in the third scene, the car horn prelude that leads off the production, the absurdist arguments of the Black and White Ministers--is a comic delight. Here is one of Ligeti's masterpieces--a must for fans of modern opera--in its full glory. --Jason Verlinde
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But then I got the Wergo version (live in 1987), and was not so impressed. Most of it, I understood, was due to the interpretation, which was too slow in spots for my tastes, but it also sounded distracted in the arrangement. It was hard to keep your eye on the goal with all the extended slapstick and farce going on.
Now comes this new version, edited and revised by Ligeti himself in 1997. And what a difference it makes. It is in English this time, but you'll still need the libretto, as some of the sung parts are just not understandable anyway (mostly the high register parts). However, the energy on this is just fantastic. It kicks and pops right from the start, and rarely lets up. The end section is much better done, providing a more logical and appropriate ending for the piece. Ligeti has abandoned the half-opera half-play aspect of it, opting this time for more opera, and it works beautifully. The opera has been cut from two hours in its original version to a more compact hour and 3/4, but you'll never miss the sections that are gone.
The only complaint I have is that Sibylle Ehlert seems to struggle unduly with her part as Gepopo; I can only imagine that, since this is a live recording (you can hear the audience laugh audibly during certain sections), running around and gesticulating wildly interferes with her ability to sing the passages as smoothly as the rest of the cast. She does the honors of repeating most of the performance on Sony's Ligeti Edition #4 in a variation of Gepopo's announcements, and does a stunning job there. Her performance issues do not interfere with the enjoyment of the piece; she still brings the energy.
The plot is a little loopy, and it's hard to discern a lot of coherence in it, but it's still fun. Death arrives in the personage of Nekrotzar to the little run-down hamburg of Breughelland. He ensnares the village drunk as his slave, and announces that he intends to destroy Breughelland at midnight. Along the way, we meet the two lovers who start and end the opera (and are completely oblivious to the fact that anything has occurred), Astradomors (the court astrologist) and his dominatrix wife Mescalina, Venus (not sure what her function is here, but it's a pretty part), and Prince Go-Go and his completely disfunctional cabinet. Nekrotzar storms into Prince Go-Go's audience, making lots of loud and pretentious pronouncements about destroying them all, gets really drunk, passes out and blows his opportunity to fulfill his mission (we assume, anyway; no one seems to have died by the end of the piece except after the proposed deluge by Nekrotzar has come and gone). The whole piece may be an attempt to point out the absurdity being consumed with the thought of death, but that's certainly going to be up to interpretation. In the end, Nekrotzar bubbles away to nothing, while most of the political factions involved in the farce tear each other to shreds.
Ligeti's use of instrumentation is, as always, innovative, and works as a whole. There are passages in here that are classic Ligeti, and with the new recording, it's so much easier to hear the subtlety of the arrangement. Kudos to Salonen for a fine job of balancing all the sections and keeping everything together; it can a difficult piece both to perform and to listen to, but this version makes it a pleasurable and enjoyable treat.
What doesn't come up much in the other reviews is just how funny this opera is. It's a dark, dark comedy--some people just don't get dark comedy--but a comedy it is. The language, in translation, is often coarse and rough-hewn, but it's an accurately sharpened version of the way a lot of people speak. The music is in places slapstick but in other places is truly sublime. It has been pointed out that there's not much respect for authority figures in this opera. That's OK with me.
Ligeti spent a lot of time reworking this piece, removing impracticalities in performance and instrumentation. He ended up with a cohesive, hilarious whole. There are some real challenges for the singers, but I don't hear a weak voice in the entire performance. I find it quite listenable on its own. Readers on the the East coast will have an opportunity to see the Met perform this in the 2009-2010 season. I'm jealous.
I should also point out that Ligeti extracted a short suite from this opera that's available here as well as on a couple of other CDs. The suite itself is available in two forms--one with trumpet and one with soprano. The suite got me interested in the opera and it may serve as a stepping stone for others.
Le Grand Macabre, by far the lengthiest of Ligeti's works, represented a culmination of Ligeti's work up through its 1978 premier. After this he seemed to feel that he could not go on rewriting works like Atmosphères and Aventures, and like Beethoven, he fell relatively silent for a few years before resuming in a more neoclassical vein with the Horn Trio. Alas, although I enjoy experimental theater, and support efforts to extend music theater and other forms of theater beyond simulationism, I've never warmed to Meschke's libretto. Rendered in a more-or-less traditional operatic context (albeit with postmodern music), this setting of Gheldorode's ballade seems more pompous and self-indulgent than surreal or profound. Perhaps this text just isn't the caliber of Beckett, Jarry or Robert Wilson. Or perhaps a less ostentatious theatrical context would better suit the work. But I think that deploying the accoutrements of traditional Western opera to construct a satire of that tradition is probably a losing proposition overall: it's just too "easy" to poke fun of a genre that requires so much suspension of disbelief. The most successful avant garde operas tend to either stay outside the capabilities of conventional opera companies (Einstein on the Beach, for example, uses neither a traditional orchestra nor bel canto singers), or else look to extend the artform musically and dramatically rather than looking backwards (Taverner, Ulisse, Die Soldaten, etc.).
Ligeti always seemed better suited for nonsensical or abstract texts than he did with concrete texts. The vernacular often took him toward a literalism that undermines the depth of his highly cultivated musical language. Contrast the overly particularlized text painting and straightforward puns of Le Grand Macabre to Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures, especially in a good staging that brings out the humor. Or consider how powerful and radical Ligeti's Requiem, with its jaded Latin text, still sounds half a century later (Stanley Kubrick or no). Still, a good production with a terrific visual concept and a director that can emphasize the humor, goes a long way toward ameliorating whatever misgivings one might have about the libretto. And have no misgivings at all about the music, which is marvelous, colorful and unashamed of its voluptuous sound surface. Much of it resembles works like Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures, but in English and with a full orchestral accompaniment. A few passages are closer to the sonorist Ligeti of Atmosphères and Volumina, while others anticipate the neoclassical orientation of late period Ligeti. The music associated with the lover couple (whose characters were named Spermando and Clitoria in the original, but now bear expurgated monikers) is often reminiscent of Clocks and Clouds, sometimes with undulating chromatic lines in the strings and woodwinds outlining chromatic scales in an example of classic Ligeti micropolyphony.
Le Grand Macabre also contains a good dose of postmodern pastiche, such as the passage starting at 1:16 of Track 6 in the opera's first scene, which I read as a quotation of a few common modernist licks. The second scene is of a style associated with post-War composers like Tippett and Birtwhistle. And the work ends with a diatonic passacaglia of tenuous tonality. Nekrotzar's Entrance in the third scene may be the most famous excerpt, a passacaglia over a crazy distortion of the theme from the finale of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. There are other allusions to specific pieces, such as Offenbach's Can Can in Scene 2. And of course there are plenty of parodies of operatic conventions, such as the male lover being sung by a female singer in a satire of the trouser role tradition, or the moralizing ensemble ending recalling operas like Don Giovanni (or The Rake's Progress). What remains constant is Ligeti's mastery at eliciting an almost unbroken succession of unexpected colors from the voices and instruments.
A full libretto is supplied. The recording makes a nice contrast with the original German version of Le Grand Macabre, which you might be able to track down from the Wergo recording, either complete or condensed into a concise and very enjoyable format (as there was originally much more spoken dialog than the 1997 version). And of course this recording is in English, which Ligeti came to prefer over the German or Swedish of the original. The play by Michel de Ghelderode is in French, so Ligeti and Meschke retained the language of the title.
Late in life, Ligeti contemplated writing a second opera based on Alice in Wonderland, but old age and ill health curtailed his compositional activity. Le Grand Macabre will stand as his most ambitious endeavor to marry musical invention with theatrical relevance.