Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Four lonely people, bound by love and fate, with inexpressible feelings that boil over in the pressure cooker of war. Àlex Ollé’s conception of Il Trovatore for Dutch National Opera hits the bull’s eye.

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance



Wolfgang Ablinger - Sperrhacke (Piet the Pot); Pavlo Hunka (Nekrotzar). English National Opera. ENO - September 2009. Photographer : Stephen Cummiskey.
20 Sep 2009

Humour and horror — Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the ENO, London

A massive female figure fills the whole stage at the ENO for Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, in this amazing production from La Fura del Bas. (Alex Ollé). This production is so inherently dramatic that it brings Ligeti's "anti-opera" onto a new level as .

György Ligeti : Le Grand Macabre

Venus/Gepopo Susanna Andersson; Mescalina Susan Bickley; Prince Go-Go Andrew Watts; Piet the Pot Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Nekrotzar Pavlo Hunka; Astradamors Frode Olsen; White Minister Daniel Norman; Black Minister Simon Butteriss; Amanda Rebecca Bottone; Amando Frances Bourne. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann; Directors Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco; Set Designer Alfons Flores; Video Designer Franc Aleu; Costume Designer Lluc Castells; Lighting Designer Peter van Praet; Translator Geoffrey Skelton. English National Opera. The Coliseum, London

Above: Wolfgang Ablinger - Sperrhacke (Piet the Pot); Pavlo Hunka (Nekrotzar). English National Opera. ENO - September 2009. [All photos by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera]


The giant woman is a miracle of motors and pulleys, engineering transfigured as art. She’s obviously not alive, but she moves, following the action. She takes on whatever is projected onto her, changing with light from woman to man, aging, decaying, turning into a skull. She’s solid enough to support actors crawling over her yet seems to disappear into starlight or clouds when the lighting’s right. Her body opens to reveal secret caverns. She’s so wonderful, you’re mesmerized.

“A dress rehearsal for the end of the world” wrote Michel de Ghelderode whose original play inspired Ligeti’s “anti-opera”. Le Grand Macabre is an apocalyptic vision after Heironymous Bosch, Theatre of the Absurd at its most picaresque. Nothing is supposed to make sense, all logic overturned. So lovers Amando and Amanda (Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone, both women) wear their muscles outside their skin. Nekrotzar, note the nameplay, (Pavlo Hunka) is the all powerful figure of Death, who rides a plastic bubble horse while wielding a scythe.

Grande_Macabre_010.gifRebecca Bottone (Amanda) and Frances Bourne (Amando)

There’s lots of action, for this is Breughelland, teeming with busy figures. Venus (Susanna Andersson) slides down from the ceiling, and later appears as singing stormtrooper. Lots of deliberately unerotic sexual shennanigans - Astramodars (Frode Olsen) and his wife Mescalina (Susan Bickley), she of the conical size ZZ bra cups. The Black Minister (Simon Butteries) and The White Minister (Daniel Norman) exchange playground obscenities in alphabetical order. Piet the Pot ((Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is a down to earth drunk. Prince Go-Go (Andrew Watts, the countertenor) portrays a sad Elvis impersonator, his naivety no match for the evil plotters around him. There’s even a recreation of Michael Jackson’s *Thriller *dance routine to keep the chorus and actors on their toes.

It’s wildly madcap, lots of fun if taken on its own terms. Judging by the laughter most of this audience got the right mood. But the difficulty with Le Grand Macabre, is that it’s not easy to marry humour with horror. Some of Ligeti’s jokes are pretty asinine anyway, without the saving grace of shock, but there’s a lot more darkness and despair in his music than this production dwells on. On the other hand, human nature being what it is chooses levity over grim surreality .

In the Second Act, where Ligeti writes longer musical passages without narrative, Baldur Brönimann got reasonably idiomatic playing from the orchestra. Nonetheless this isn’t Ligeti at his most subtle, and most of the audience were there for the show not the music. Since this production had so much going for it that its sheer inventive energy was compensation for the relative lack of musical bite. Nothing to scare away Those Who Fear New Music. This production was so impressive that it will stick in the memory . For once, it will be good to listen to a recording (ideally Salonen) allowing La Fura del Bas’s incredible images come to life again in your imagination. You can hear the music again, but you’ll never see another production quite like this !

Grande_Macabre_017.gifAndrew Watts (Prince Go-Go), Wolfgang Ablinger - Sperrhacke (Piet the Pot), Pavlo Hunka (Nekrotzar) and Frode Olsen (Astradamors)

Yet ultimately, Le Grand Macabre isn’t all that macabre. Death is overturned. Prince Go-Go is arrested because he isn’t dead. Piet, Astromodars and Mescalina, return to life and carry on as before. Nekrotzar is defeated and doesn’t come back. Instead he’s replaced by a shrunken puppet, inside the giant woman’s stomach. Then the giant’s features bloom again, colour returning to her cheeks, and she smiles. She’s remarkably realistic now, so it’s quite frightening seeing her eyeball to eyeball if you’re sitting upstairs. The giant woman’s face came from a film at the very beginning, where a sad, lonely woman seemed to be dying of a heart attack. She doesn’t die, but such a shambles of an existence is hardly life. It was uncomfortable seeing her “dead” body subject to indignities, but seeing the real actress who plays her in the film taking applause later wasn’t reassuring. Which is perhaps the point - we can’t assume everything’s back to normal, whatever normal “is”.

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre runs at the ENO until October 9th.

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):