Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s fifteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.



A scene from Le Grand Macabre
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.

György Ligéti: Le Grand Macabre

Piet the pot: Chris Merritt; Amando: Annie Vavrille; Amanda: Ilse Eerens; Nekrotzar: Sir Willard White /Roberto Abbondanza; Astradamors: Nicholas Isherwood; Mescalina: Ning Liang; Venus: Caroline Stein; Prince Go-Go: Brian Asawa; White Minister: Eberhard Francesco Lorenz; Black Minister: Martin Winkler; Gepopo: Caroline Stein. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Dell’opera. Maestro concertatore e Direttore: Zoltán Peskó. Maestro del Coro: Andrea Giorgi. Ideazione: Alex Ollè (La Fura dels Baus) & Valentina Carrasco. Regia: Alex Ollè.

Above: A scene from Le Grand Macabre


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.

Giuseppe Pennisi

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):