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Le Grand Macabre: Death, be not proud

Every so often, the field commonly known as “culture” presents its followers with a Big Event. The latest one is the first-ever New York production of Györgi Ligeti’s opera “Le Grand Macabre” at the New York Philharmonic, which opened Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall to an audience of le tout New York.

“Le Grand Macabre,” a 1970s-vintage atonal opera about death, sex and the Apocalypse, is accounted a classic in Europe, seldom done in the United States, and, presented in a lavish semi-staging with video projections, was a planned highlight of Alan Gilbert’s first season as the Philharmonic’s music director. The prospect of all this led subscribers to turn back their tickets in droves, which cleared the way for single-ticket buyers (a pattern familiar from the Metropolitan Opera’s success with Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” in 2008); Avery Fisher Hall was completely sold out.

There’s certainly reason to be excited about this outing of “Le Grand Macabre.” It’s great to see the New York Philharmonic for once getting itself on the map with a hip cultural event, investing wholescale in a contemporary work (premiered in 1977, substantially revised in 1996 for the Salzburg production) and finding a creative way to present it. Ligeti’s opera is a kind of medieval pageant, a social satire that slices through centuries of European tradition, revolving around the characters of Piet the Pot (a drunken Everyman) and Nekrotzar (or Death) as they careen through a surreal figurescape in the fictive Breughelland, encountering archetypal lovers (Amando and Amanda), the crazy astrologer Astradamors and his wife Mescalina engaged in kinky sex rituals, and the ineffective Prince Go-Go with his advisor Gepopo spouting coloratura fireworks like a crazed computer program. In the end, either everyone dies or Nekrotzar turns out to be a fraud: no one is sure.

Like the story, the score both embraces and thumbs its nose at tradition in that blend of sophistication and naughtiness typical of a certain era of European musical modernism. There are quotes from Beethoven and Offenbach’s Can-Can, an opening fanfare for car horns, and a lot of brooding “clouds” of music, layered suspended chords, a signature Ligeti effect (think of "Atmospheres," featured in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001”). The Philharmonic played willingly and in some cases beautifully, spreading a thick impasto of soft sound under the voices, or chopping into the drama with harsh wedges of percussion; but there were rawnesses and slight awkwardnesses that conveyed the sense that the music was still new to them.
(read more after the jump)

Doug Fitch, responsible for the production, is an old friend of Gilbert’s, and is already signed up to do Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” with the Philharmonic in 2011. His presentation turned out to be a clever form of high-tech puppet theater that retained a sense of the handmade -- not unlike the work he did with the University of Maryland orchestra on its innovative “Petrushka” in 2008, or with the National Symphony Orchestra in several productions including “L’Enfant et Les Sortilèges” in 2004. A large oval sunburst form framed by golden rays, suspended over the musicians, was the projection surface for images broadcast live from two aquarium-like glass tanks at one side of the stage where puppeteers manipulated dioramas and figures: a globe that spun to reveal a gaping red-fanged mouth at one side, a landscape overshadowed by scudding clouds, thought bubbles, and occasionally the heads of the live singers thrust into the proceedings.

The live action, meanwhile, extended off the stage: a section of the New York Choral Artists was stationed in the balcony to provide realistic heckling during one effective send-up of political speeches by the Black and White Ministers, played by Joshua Bloom and Peter Tantsits (as the Philharmonic players joined in, throwing wadded-up balls of paper at the offending speakers). At another point Nekrotzar processed in state down the left aisle of the auditorium, attended by musicians and solemn flag-bearers, with Piet going before him like a clown, distributing autographs and handshakes to the audience. This kind of thing is familiar, but effective.

There were a lot of good singers, new to the Philharmonic, who mastered long and difficult roles and communicated without the benefit of supertitles -- a wise move in terms of dramatic immediacy, though I can’t say how audible the words were from the back of the hall. As Amanda and Amando Jennifer Black and Renée Tatum, gamely sporting nude bodysuits, had a lot of the most grateful music, a not-quite-send-up of romantic operatic tradition; they wandered back and forth across the stage, wrapped up in their own Monteverdian-cum-Straussian treble musings, until their characters finally had sex and reappeared at the end of the work sounding more atonal, fragmented, and wise, like a parable of Adam and Eve swapping innocence for wisdom.

Mark Schowalter gave energy and toughness to the big role of Piet, clad as a Breughel peasant figure, who has to sing with a drunken, shouting heaviness through the whole evening. Eric Owens (WNO’s Porgy this spring) was a monumental Nekrotzar whose vocal presence, though strong, wasn’t quite as imposing as his physical one. Wilbur Pauley mugged and cavorted as the henpecked Astradamors. Barbara Hannigan got a star turn as Gepopo, costumed with a slight animé vibe and singing with silvery ease, and Melissa Parks was a properly domineering Mescalina. A standout was Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Go-Go, a waifish but strikingly male-sounding countertenor with a wide enough range of color and emotion to bring the character of a puppet prince, costumed in a spherical outfit like a white soccer ball, to more vivid life than some of the more strongly delineated characters.

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. In fact, “Le Grand Macabre,” while worth seeing and hearing, is an opera that, like its starstruck lovers, sometimes gets bogged down in its own fascination with itself, is not always quite as funny as it thinks it is, and is dated in its deliberate and relentless epaté-ing of the bourgeois. Still, it was well worth doing. Gilbert led with conviction, showed his leadership, and produced something that a lot of people will be talking about, and since so few orchestras are doing anything comparable these days, this performance, half by default, should be accounted a considerable achievement.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 28, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  national , news , opera  
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“Le Grand Macabre,” while worth seeing and hearing, is an opera that, like its starstruck lovers, sometimes gets bogged down in its own fascination with itself..."

And THAT is the defining characteristic of so much 20th century modernist music (contrived/self-indulgent) and why most of it will perish.

But I do look forward to Messiaen's 'Saint Francis' -- one of the very few worthwhile pieces from that era.

Posted by: Operahaven | May 28, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Good review. Some quibbles: Ligeti's harmonic language in this piece is not primarily atonal. She also creates some straw men. Just who has this either/or attitude she regrets? The work may be slightly dated dramatically-the way Jarry's Ubu Roi may be dated, but musically it is a masterpiece. An imperfect masterpiece capable of being analyzed like any other work in the canon. I feel she implicitly bewails the sexual shenanigans (the graffito of the penis f'rinstance). I feel they make a profound statement and are integral to the work's complex message. As well to complain of the obscenities in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

Posted by: Mihalyka | May 28, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure what the reviewer means by "investing wholescale in a contemporary work," but I thought the production worth seeing once. I cannot imagine wanting to see it again. That is how this sort of "Contemporary Cultural Event" differs from Beethoven and even Offenbach. It's not just how dated the music sounds while trying to prove how with-it it is. It's the whole cutesy look-at-me ethos. Like those names. Nekrotzar, ruler of death, got it. Amando and Amanda, lovers, got it. Astradamors, star lover, got it. Gepopo, as in puppeteer Gepetto, got it. Got it -- don't need to get it again.

Posted by: clarino | May 29, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Another not all that hot performance, like all the other performances. Nothing is very good, everything is vaguely disappointing. This isn't as bad as most of the other stuff. Who is this critic's audience?

Posted by: markfromark | May 29, 2010 11:36 PM | Report abuse

I take offense with the half by default comment. If someone has the vision, wisdom and musical talent to make such a difficult work into such a spectacular success (Did you hear and feel the rapturous audience response?) it is entirely their credit. Perhaps Miss Midget can sing us a phrase and show us how it can ge done better. Easy to criticize, especially when you cannot do it yourself! I question this critic's credentials and credibility!

Posted by: SourandInsecure | May 30, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I was happy to see that such a momentous event received a review in the Post, though nowhere to be found in our newspaper copy. I really think Le Grand Macabre is one of the major works of our time, but you do have to have a sense of humor to appreciate and not take it too seriously! I would also agree with the comment that Ms. Midgette always seems to be "on the fence" when it comes to reviewing any performance. It is necessary to point out both strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the review I want to know whether she liked the performance or not. Most of the time I don't have a clue!

Posted by: lj4jl | June 1, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

I think that proper research for this long and important review would have unearthed the information that the San Francisco Opera FULLY staged the Ligeti opera in its subscription season as part of Pamela Rosenberg's ambitious "Animating Opera" project of less than a decade ago.

Also, Penderecki wrote an opera on Jarry's "Roi Ubu". Perhaps the San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago Lyric, or MET operas will one day stage it in a production by William Kentridge. (I hope that the season that "Roi Ubu" is staged also sees the restored Washington National Opera staging an American classical opera.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 1, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see that I got some new readers with this review. Clearly some of you who commented don't read my work regularly. Surely, though, a lover of Ligeti can come up with a more sophisticated response to a critic than, "I don't agree with her, therefore I question her credentials!"

I know very well that Pamela Rosenberg staged "Grand Macabre" in San Francisco. (I remember that one reason she wanted to do it was that one of her board members was so profoundly excited about the work after seeing it on an opera tour of Europe; I think everyone hoped that others would have the same reaction after seeing it in San Francisco). For what it's worth, I also attended the Salzburg production for which Ligeti reworked the piece in 1997. I am a big fan of a lot of Ligeti. I just am not passionate about this particular work.

Posted by: MidgetteA | June 2, 2010 1:50 AM | Report abuse

The San Francisco Opera staged 2004 production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre – one year before its world premiere of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic – was made possible in part by SFO patrons Reid and Peggy Dennis and John and Cynthia Fry Gunn; and by a major award from the National Endowment for the Arts. As in Salzburg and Copenhagen, San Francisco used Ligeti’s revised 1996 version of the 1978 work. While hardly fully representative of the split critical and audience reaction to the SFO production, leading music critics Joshua Kosman and Anthony Tommasini were positive in their reactions:

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 3, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

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