For starters: someone, apparently, had to, and it wasn’t going to be the Metropolitan Opera, or even City Opera. Ligeti’s opera, composed from 1974-1977 and heavily revised 20 years later, had never been heard in full in New York; in fact, the piece has barely been heard in North America, aside from a 2004 staging at the San Francisco Opera.
Maybe that’s as it should have been.
To the late composer’s “utter horror”, Ligeti is best known to the laic for his appearance on the soundtracks of several Stanley Kubrick films, from 2001 to The Shining. And his eerie sonicscapes are effective as mood-setters—as background. But a whole night of it? As main attraction?
I know that my musical tastes trend toward the conservative, and I don’t want to turn this column into an argument about tonality versus its opposite. But Le Grand Macabre is so steeped in “modernity”—arrhythmic clangors, atonal melodies and bizarre orchestrations—it starts to sound like parody, a middle finger not only to traditions but to their alternatives. (The finest, and funnest, musical moment of the evening were the first half’s two Preludes for Car Horns, like dissonant trumpets-with-laryngitis struggling to screech.)
That idea of musical mockery makes more sense in the context of the Philharmonic’s production, which played like opera burlesque. Le Grand Macabre, with a libretto by Ligeti and Michael Meschke, is already kinda funny; in it, Death comes to a town whose residents get him so drunk he forgets his duty and dies from shame, which gives the townspeople another excuse to get drunk. (The Philharmonic performed it in an English translation as per the composer’s instructions that the opera be sung in the native language of wherever it's performed.) And there are obvious comic moments, such as when a harridan loses the husband she loved-to-berate and sings “Oh, Pain!” an obvious send-up of classical aria.
But this production, helmed by Doug Fitch, took a silly opera to far sillier places: in Scene III, when the libretto calls for a parchment to be unfurled, Fitch instead had the singers grab their crotches and rub their asses. It was highbrow entertainment at the lowest possible brow.
Frustrating as Ligeti’s score could be, the orchestra, lead by new music director Alan Gilbert (who bet some of his musical capital on this production, apparently with success), gave a sharp, clear performance of a complex score that would have been easy to muddle. They received lusty applause, which they deserved. The evening’s biggest disappointment was Fitch; while the singers wore lavish costumes and used modest props and the slightest bit of sets, Fitch and his company Giants Are Small produced “live animations” on stage, projecting them onto an ovular screen hanging above the singers.
It sounded more amazing than it turned out to be: a promise of puppetry was more a steady stream of model sets, scrolling backdrops, handmade signs, models, drawings, intertitles, the occasional human head, even a dirty cartoon. It was hard to pull off, and it showed: more strain and limitations than awesome whimsy. (Clifton Taylor’s lighting design, on the other hand, used an unusual palette of sickly greens, neon-ish magentas and clashing metallic blues to great effect, emphasizing the feel of a dissonant carnival set to the sound of nightmares.)
In fact, the strongest moment of the evening was Scene III, in which the production dropped the gimmicky animations and embraced a more traditional theatrical approach. The Death character paraded down the orchestra-seating aisle as though on his way to deliver The State of the Union, flanked by banner-wavers, preceded by a flunky passing out postcards, trailed by a chamber-like trio of squawking musicians. The scene was riotous: a chorus occupied the balcony, clamoring like a peanut gallery; the musicians on stage joined in the fun, tossing projectiles at characters making failed speeches. (Unfortunately, my entire row emptied out after intermission, and they all missed this best-part-of-the-night.)
Le Grand Macabre is an outrageous opera and it requires an outrageous staging. Too often during the Philharmonic’s semi-staged performance you could feel that qualifying “semi,” leaving you with a hard-to-follow plot and a brash, obnoxious score. Some critics complained that William Kentridge’s recent production of Shostakovitch's The Nose was so cluttered it obscured the music. Would that we could be making similar complaints about this bit of Kentridge-lite.