Le Grand Macabre, ENO, English National Opera, September 2009


This musical work by Ligeti (1923–2006) is related to opera in the way a painting by Hieronymus Bosch is related to a landscape. It seems to be about death, of both body and soul, but is a surreal work based on a 1934 drama La balade du Grand Macabre by Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode. The action takes place in a principality called Breughelland, named after the painter Pieter Brueghel, whose Triumph of Death seems to have been an inspiration. Ligeti originally wrote the music in 1975–77, collaborating on the libretto with Michael Meschke. It was written in German but intended to be flexible in its language and translated for performance. There was originally a fair amount of spoken dialogue, but much of this was removed in the revised version of 1996, which is what was performed here. Perhaps more should have gone, because some of the invective was unnecessarily unpleasant, including phrases such as ‘dog f…er’ and ‘arse l…er’. Is this really necessary in a work of art? Are there not other ways of expressing things that can carry the emotions by clever understatement? These particular phrases were uttered by the white minister and the black minister, who looked and performed like stock characters from a pantomime.

To understand this strange work I found it helpful to recall that Ligeti had shocking experiences as a young man. He was drafted into a Jewish labour battalion in 1944, and his close family was all sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Only his mother survived. The central character of the opera is Death in the person of Nekrotzar, sung here by Pavlo Hunka. His slave Piet the Pot was sung by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and the two lovers Amando and Amanda, who perpetually have sex together, were sung by Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone. There is a court astronomer named Astradamors and his sadistic wife Mescalina, sung by Frode Olsen and Susan Bickley, and in the second part we meet Prince Go-Go, sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts, and Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, sung by Susanna Anderson.

The action seems to lack a clear narrative, and I shall not go into a long exposition of the various scenes, but the production by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco showed a variety of things going on, in and around a huge female corpse crouching on stage. The lighting by Peter van Praet was very clever as it threw some strange views on the corpse and even seemed to show its skeleton on occasion. Set designs were by Alfons Flores, and costumes, which I wasn’t wild about, by Lluc Castells. The production is being done jointly with the theatre La Monnaie in Brussels, the Gran Teatro del Liceu Barcelona, and the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma. Baldur Brönnimann conducted and did a fine job with the orchestra. When I closed my eyes it sounded wonderful, but the grotesque action on stage was a distraction, and lovers of Ligeti might prefer a simple recording.

Leave a Comment