25 Jun 2009
Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre shocks Rome but only mildly
Le Grand Macabre is the only opera of György Ligéti, one of the major composers of the 20th century.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Le Grand Macabre is the only opera of György Ligéti, one of the major composers of the 20th century.
It is also one of the contemporary operas most frequently performed in Europe. Ligéti composed two different versions of Le Grand Macabre — the former had its debut in Stockholm in 1978, the latter in Salzburg in 1997. The main difference is that the second version replaces almost all the spoken parts with recitative. The production at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma (June 18-23) is a world-wide affair. It started in Brussels a few months ago. From the Italian capital it will travel to Sidney, Australia. In the fall, it will have a long spell at the English National Opera in London and at the Liceu in Barcelona. It might go on to the US and other major European opera houses in 2010.
It is a grand, and very costly, production organized by the Catalan Group La Fura dels Baus , now very trendy — the Group has staged the entire Ring in Florence and Valencia; and it is booked by La Scala for a new production of Tannäuser, which will also be shown in Berlin and other major houses.
Le Grand Macabre reaches Rome with a reputation of scandal and even perversion. In January-February, the Brussels performances were well received by the audience but a few reviewers — including The New York Times — wrote about “debauchery” on stage. The new management of the Teatro dell’Opera advertised that the production is “for an adult audience”. At the opening nights, there were a few boos at some sexually explicit moments in the opera (in particular in the second scene of the first act) but the audience did not seem shocked. If it did, it was a very mild shock. Rome has been for centuries the Babylon of Europe and is accustomed to almost everything. There were several curtain calls, but (as it is often the case when a modern opera is on stage) a few rows and many boxes were empty.
Let us place Le Grand Macabre in its proper context. In his own comments to the second version of the opera, Ligéti said that he initially intended to compose a singspiel, but eventually he wrote a full opera because, among other things, it is difficult to find singers equally good at singing, acting and dancing. He also clarifies that, as a Hungarian, he was well-acquainted with operetta. Finally, his main operatic sources of inspiration were Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Verdi’s Falstaff. In short, even though Le Grand Macabre requires a huge orchestra and ten soloists, Ligéti thought of something light (the duration of the two acts is around 100 minutes) and very ironic. There are quotations from Verdi, Donizetti, Stravinsky, Mozart and, of course, Monteverdi in both the vocal and the orchestral score, which add irony to an otherwise late 20th century musical work (it is influenced by both the German Darmstadt School and the French ICRAM School. Along with numerous rhythmic orchestral passages, “declamation” slides easily into “arioso” and “duets”.
Irony also arises in the text. Based on a Belgian play, it is an allegory. In Bruegeland (a country based on Bruegel’s paintings), an asteroid is about to destroy every living thing on the planet. As the news breaks that death is near, the reaction of the populace is extreme sex (from the adolescent sex of a vigorous couple of teen agers to sadomasochistic sex of the Court’s astrologist and his wife). A few take up drinking, instead. The second part takes place in the corridors of power. As death arrives, intrigue and deception become pointless. Rather, it is better to join all in a crazy dance (a wild 15th century “ciaccona”). Mr. Death is expected to do all the killing and all the destroying, but finds more fun in joining the humanity in extreme sex and wild dancing . Thus, Bruegeland’s last day is postponed, perhaps forever.
In my opinion, La Fura dels Baus uses a very heavy hand in the stage production that clashes with Ligéti’s sophisticated and elegant score. The stage is dominated by a huge statue of woman in progressive decomposition where the characters come out from very private parts of her body. Irony does not seem to be a gift of the Catalan Group, even though, thanks to Ligéti’s music, it is manifest in the second part (especially in the “ciaccona”).
The orchestra responds extremely well to Zoltán Peskó’s conducting. Peskó is a compatriot and long-time friend of Ligéti. He is thus, fully equipped to show all the delicate nuances of the score. Chris Merritt has completed his transition from Bellini and Rossini coloratura belcanto to a high baritone for 20th century works. Brian Asawa is the best countertenor now available world-wide. Sir Willard White is as imposing as ever. Nicholas Isherwood is a master of early British music where it is quoted in the score. Caroline Stein is now a veteran of the double role a sensual Venus and a cynic Gepopo. Ning Liang is a vicious Nescalina. Annie Vavrille and Ilse Eerens are just delightful as the amorous teenagers.