The UK Premiere of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre by English National Opera was an operatic highlight of the early eighties. It’s now back at the Coliseum in a vastly different production by Catalan “total theatre” company La Fura del Baus.
The staging is dominated by an enormous naked woman (to give an idea of dimensions, two real heads stand in for eyeballs at one point), who twists, turns and grimaces throughout the evening. This astonishing apparatus is a blank landscape onto which images of death and calamity are projected. The hanging tendons of the lovers Amando and Amanda, recalling Gunther von Hagens specimens, grinning skulls and unravelling intestines are constant reminders of corporeal fragility and the proximity of death.
There’s a danger that the visuals will overtake the show, were it not for the magnificence of the music. The real glory of the evening is Ligeti’s incredibly inventive and varied score, superbly played by the ENO orchestra under the baton of Baldur Brönnimann, who conducted last year’s Lost Highway at the Young Vic.
One of the best opera scores of the past few decades, it ranges from the banging and crashing of a whole battery of percussion, to deafening noise, brassy exuberance, classical allusion and the ethereal wispiness for which the composer is probably best known. The glorious second act passacaglia, based on the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica matches anything written for the opera stage in the post-war period.
There’s also bags of humour, not just in the crazy antics of the cartoony characters but in Ligeti’s wayward orchestrations and witty set-pieces, such as the car horn cadenzas (spectacularly honked here) that open the work and return with welcome regularity.
Voices don’t fare quite as well as the orchestra. Whether the recessed quality is down to the vast machinery swallowing up sound is not clear but a lack of energetic word-pointing and an unusually (for ENO) high number of heavily-accented non-British singers in the cast doesn’t help.
Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a colourful Piet the Pot but Pavlo Hunka’s Death Tsar is not as imposing as he could be, which undermines his downfall as his efforts to wipe out humanity are thwarted. Susannah Andersson is a fluffy, floating, pink Venus and also impresses as an agile Gepopo, the stuttering chief of secret police, whose comedy belies a sinister reality. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a reaction to the sight of a white singer blacking up (Simon Butteriss’ Black Minister) or whether this issue has now come full circle. Counter tenor Andrew Watts is a sprightly gold-encased Prince Go-Go.
Loosely based on Michel de Ghelderode’s 1934 play La balade du Grand Macabre, this tale of ludicrous over-reaching ambition, child-like characterisations and scatological outbursts surely harks back to the very birth of surrealistic drama with the Ubu plays of Alfred Jarry.
The strengths of Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco’s production are visual rather than dramatic, with a slight flabbiness to the direction of the singers, but the musical performance can’t be faulted and you are unlikely to see or hear anything like it in the opera house. This is an ideal way into contemporary opera and a visit can’t be more highly recommended.