Like Pelléas et Mélisande, which appeared at the Barbican a year ago, this performance of Le grand macabre represented a collaboration between the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted now as then by Sir Simon Rattle, and director Peter Sellars. The reasons why a semi-staging of the opera worked were also similar to those that made the performance of Pelléas such a success. Sellars believes that when an orchestra is placed in a pit the overall sound is to an extent ‘pre-mixed’ before it reaches the audience. On a stage, in contrast, the sound opens out so that greater dialogues can take place across the orchestra.
Le grand macabre, with its weird and wonderful music and innovative combinations of instruments, is an opera that benefits in particular from allowing the sounds to be delineated, and Rattle proved to be the master of spotlighting every instrument so that it came into sharp focus. The brilliance, however, derived from the fact that it was the delineation of every line that in itself ensured there were such strong blends and balances of sound across the orchestra as a whole. The orchestra was laid out on the stage to maximise upon certain effects and interactions between different instruments. In addition, the fact that its formation followed the curve of the stage ensured it was aesthetically pleasing, which was important when in this instance it constituted a part of the stagecraft in its own right.
This performance employed Ligeti’s 1996 revision of the opera, which Sellars himself directed for its premiere in Salzburg in 1997. The piece is about the impending destruction of the world and Ligeti sets the action in the mythical Brueghelland, which is deliberately unspecific, even if the reference to the artist makes it hard not to associate it with The Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Sellars, however, firmly placed the action in the modern day where the threat to the world was nuclear, with a large screen behind the stage frequently proclaiming ‘Cleaner Futures: Nuclear Energy Summit, London – Berlin 2017’. This was ironic because the argument, in this context, was that a cleaner future really derived from exploring alternatives to nuclear energy, while the notice also referenced the two cities most associated which Rattle.
On the screen, we saw two conference representatives repeatedly meet and shake hands at the same time as the characters of Nekrotzar and Piet joined forces on stage, suggesting just how ‘unholy’ this summit really was. Another image that frequently appeared on the screen was that of the modern day Netherlands to act as a counterpoint to the typical Brueghellesque image. In essence, the landscape may have changed little in the past 500 years but it looked completely different because now sheep grazed just yards from pylons, factories and power stations. Other images that appeared throughout the drama included one of a map charting every nuclear detonation that had ever taken place (over 300 by 1960, over 1,000 by 1970 and over 2,000 by 2017), and some that hinted at the state of the world in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
The London Symphony Chorus was on superb form, and contributed far more than just singing to the evening. Dressed in either civvies or white coats its members appeared in the balcony or down the steps of the auditorium, but never on the stage. One moment they could be rushing to the front of the auditorium as a rabble chanting at Prince Go-Go, and another they might be sitting on its tiered steps in between two sections where they were needed. Chorus director Simon Halsey conducted the singers from the stage in a lab coat, and had clearly drilled them extremely well.
Given the way in which the existence of the screen, the formation of the orchestra and the positioning of the chorus all made the audience feel at the centre of this Le grand macabre, rather than merely detached observers, it was a shame that the evening was undermined by the ways in which the principal characters were portrayed. Given that the night boasted excellent musical credentials and many successes still with the staging, the weaknesses there were became disappointing precisely because they ensured that the performance fell just short of being a truly great one.
Thrusting the principal characters explicitly into the modern day proved a bridge too far because it destroyed so many of the interactions that we should have seen between them. Amando and Amanda spent the first scene staring at their laptops, presumably communicating via some internet chat room. The difficulty was not that their liaison was given a modern day twist, but that having them both gaze outwards while sitting at tables destroyed the nature of the interaction that the opera truly demands of them. It was, however, at least believable that two lovers might be messaging each other in this way. Why, however, Mescalina and Astradamors would be communicating via computers is not clear. The point is that Mescalina is an overbearing dragon, and while if the pair were in the same house he might have little chance of escaping her, if their method of interaction was over the internet surely he would have every opportunity to avoid her simply by not replying. Of course, a modern day astronomer would be using computers, but this fact still does not address the central difficulty.
Elsewhere there were a range of effects that, while not always unsuccessful, could feel tired and clichéd. For example, a camera pointed at Gepopo and projected her face live onto the screen as she lay in bed wailing, which is hardly original. Nevertheless, the real problem was more fundamental. When a piece is purposely designed to be absurd, the vagueness surrounding the setting and the cause of the impending doom are all a part of the universality of the commentary. Making these more specific therefore undermined many of Ligeti’s intentions.
No-one, however, could have doubted the strength of the cast. From the ‘double acts’ of Peter Hoare’s Piet and Pavlo Hunka’s Nekrotzar, Ronnita Miller’s Amando and Elizabeth Watts’ Amanda, and Heidi Melton’s Mescalina and Frode Olsen’s Astradamors through to Audrey Luna’s screeching Gepopo there was not a single weak link in the line-up. Even allowing for this, however, Anthony Roth Costanzo stood out as Prince Go-Go as his countertenor displayed exceptional style and precision.