Le Grand Macabre: Apocalypse whenever

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre (1996 revised version).  New York Philharmonic, 5/27/10.  Conducted by Alan Gilbert; directed and designed by Doug Fitch with Eric Owens (Nekrotzar) Mark Schowalter (Piet the Pot), Barbara Hannigan (Gepopo), and many others.

Absurdism doesn’t take well to half-assing.  If it isn’t totally over-the-top, it’s just dumb.  Which is to say that I’m not sure if presenting Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre semi-staged is a very good idea.

Nekrotzar with, uh, you know.  There’s the screen, anyways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this piece could finally get its badly overdue New York premiere.  But the logistical limitations of this production, designed and directed by Doug Fitch, frequently reminded me of the piece’s weaknesses rather than the reasons why it’s one of the most popular operas composed in the last 50 years.

This is a considerable musical achievement for the Philharmonic: the orchestra sounded fantastic, the singing was on a high level.  But I’m not so sure about the staging, or really the opera itself.

Avery Fisher Hall has been pushed to its technical limits, with a stage extending far out into the hall, placing the action in front of the orchestra.  There are elaborate costumes but there is no set; atmosphere is added not only by the credited “Atmosphericist” (AKA flashy set-mover [such that there is] and Bono lookalike) but by video on a large oval screen above the stage.  The video is a live projection of the actions of a team of puppeteers who are camped out in full view stage left, pointing a camera at a wide variety of miniature landscapes, comic book-style speech bubbles, and so on.

The plot, taking place in the grotesque Bruegelland (which according to the video resembles Tantooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet) is a ridiculous episodic story of Nekrotzar, who may or may not be Death.  Apparently it’s time for the Apocalypse, which means he has to go around letting people know about this or something. These people include the court astronomer, Astradamors, tortured by his whip-wielding wife Mescalina, and Prince Go-Go and his two ministers and Gepopo, the head of his Secret Service.  Nekrotzar is accompanied by a drunken sidekick, Piet, and occasionally interrupted by a euphoric couple singing duets about how much they love each other.  Finally, midnight comes, and apparently it was all a mistake because everyone is pretty sure they’re still alive.  Or are they?  Whatever.

“Whatever” is kind of my attitude towards this piece, honestly.  Ligeti’s music is jaggedly brilliant, exciting, and occasionally exceptionally beautiful (particularly the music for the lovers, gorgeously sung by Jennifer Black and Renée Tatum in grass skirts and sequins, they could benefit from a staging that actually reflects the slinkiness of their music).  The orchestration is absurdly excessive and wonderful, including giant drum beats, many trombones, confusingly repetitive motifs, and anything else fun you can do with apocalyptic sounds.

Astradamors and Mescalina

But, despite all the action, things seem to drag, particularly in the first half.  The piece’s politics remain firmly stuck in the 1970s, and Macabre‘s absurdist, anti-bourgeois operatic stance was presumably more timely then.  Now it feels a bit old hat.  The characters are caricatures, but the production did not do justice to their ridiculousness.  The Mescalina stuff was blessedly underplayed (call me a humorless feminist but I find the character offensive), but the result was it was just annoying and slow.  Humanizing anyone is not on Ligeti’s agenda, and the (lack of) set combined with the lack of definition of the characters only called attention to the lack of dramatic development without putting enough dramatic color or contrast in its place.

Come on, naming a character Gepopo is just asking for Gaga-ness.

The second half was much better.  Things don’t really get any more action-oriented, but the action becomes even less sequential.  The production seemed inspired to greater heights of lunacy, which was exactly what it needed.  Prince Go-Go is stuck in a giant foam globe.  Why?  Is it his kingdom?  No idea, but that’s kind of the wrong question to ask.  It was funny, and Anthony Roth Costanzo (last seen in Partenope) sang with impressive power and great comic timing.  The Black and White Ministers (Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom) pulled off a lot of joint comedy, and as Gepopo we witnessed Lady Gaga’s long-anticipated operatic debut.  Meaning, Barbara Hannigan was truly amazing in the part, singing the Lulu-like music with a performance that was 25% Olympia and 75% the “Paparazzi” video, robotics and hair included.  Unlike the first half, it was delightful enough to never ask why and just go with it.

Unfortunately when we returned to Astradamors and Piet and co., things slowed down again, though Nekrotzar’s entrance through the hall with the accompaniment of a twisted klezmer band was one of the most memorable musical moments of the evening.  Eric Owens was an imposing Nekrotzar somewhat lacking in dark humor, Michael Schowalter an energetic Piet who sang the demanding music very well, though his pleasant lyric voice lacks a certain ugly cutting Mime quality this part seems to require, with all its drunken yelling.

There is so much going on here that it was sometimes hard to appreciate the fabulous playing of the New York Philharmonic and conducting of Alan Gilbert (one of, at some points, THREE conductors–joined by one in front of the singers and sometimes another for the chorus in the second tier boxes). But it sounded fantastic, much more delicate than the Salonen recording though not lacking in volume in the loud passages, and very well balanced through the most complicated sections.

Piet the Pot

The videos were fun, but sitting extreme house right orchestra the puppeteers were right in front of me, and it was hard (especially for a stage techie like me) to not watch their carefully-choreographed swapping of miniature sets rather than what was happening center stage or even on the actual screen.  It gave everything a nice handmade quality, but perhaps they could be in the back on a raised platform or somewhere where it would be less distracting?  However, I’m guessing there were already enough logistical challenges in this performance to worry about something like this.

The score has some fantastic moments: the preludes and interludes for car horns and door bells (are we thinking of anvils by any chance?), Gepopo’s stratospheric coloratura, Nekrotzar’s various apocalyptic proclamations, moments of eighteenth-century pastiche, the final passacaglia.  But it’s an opera that, completely intentionally, is lacking in a soul.  When you tire of its assertions that it is the most amusingly cheeky thing to ever happen, it is insufferably smug.  And when it is presented in an elaborate but nonetheless limited production like this one, it is hard to stay with it the whole time.

Edited to add: Anne Midgette makes a great point in her review:

The problem with this kind of Contemporary Cultural Event is that it still tends to be depicted in black and white: either you’re a Philistine who doesn’t like atonality and takes umbrage at graffiti of male genitalia on the Avery Fisher stage, or you are an insider who embraces the whole thing as a consummate masterpiece.

I admit to feeling strangely guilty for not flipping out for this one, because it’s the kind of thing that forward-thinking people like me are supposed to adore.  But, I’m sorry, I would be lying if I said I was overwhelmed.  I enjoyed it.  I’m glad the Phil put it on.  I’m sorry if I am a renegade member of the New Music Cult (I’m experienced enough with new music to know what’s going on here, but it’s hardly my specialty). This is what I thought about it, take it or leave it.

Next: T-minus less than two weeks on the LA Ring.

Photos: Chris Lee

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  1. For me it wasn't so much Tatooine, it was the opening credits of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I'm absolutely sure the production crew knows (and probably loves). Not a bad frame of reference for a piece like this.

    I think I liked the whole thing rather more than you and JSU did.

  2. One very minor point. I think that Prince GoGo's "costume" was not meant to represent a globe (albeit being globular), but a turtle's shell. The pattern of plates on the dorsal and ventral surfaces were very like the plates of a tortoise, and his drawing his arms, legs, and head inside were very tortoise-like. Thus the symbolism is of isolation and withdrawal, from the world and the threat of death, not of his realm.

  3. Very interesting! I could not see any pattern at all on his orb from where I was sitting. I'm not sure what I think about it making sense, though.

    On the other hand, it could be a soccer ball.

  4. Hi Zerbi,

    A final thought on 'Le Grande Macabre'

    >> I admit to feeling strangely guilty for not flipping out for this one, because it’s the kind of thing that forward-thinking people like me are supposed to adore. But, I'm sorry, I would be lying if I said I was overwhelmed <<

    Don't feel at all guilty. We are not the only ones who feel this way.


    I thought this was the best summary:

    "It was a great theatrical package. But a great opera ? For all the clarity of intent Gilbert brought to the music, and though the singers were game for whatever the opera threw at them, 'Le Grand Macabre' is mainly a platform for imaginative, accomplished theater personnel, as well as a healthy provocation for audiences. The experimental, splintered score wants nothing to do with greatness (or even momentum) – so much so that the first act is quite unsatisfying. Act II's final 20 minutes show you the great composer that Ligeti was. But 'Le Grand Macabre' is destined to occupy a cultural niche similar to Alfred Jarry's King Ubu plays – important to experience periodically but not regularly…"