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.
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
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.