No opera in history is better at being irreverent, raunchy and funny all at the same time, but there is one thing missing in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre– the yarn factor. Without characters to follow or care about the work needs visual crutches, which ENO’s new production provides in spades. But despite that, Ligeti’s score often sounded dated, even when so superbly played by the members of the ENO orchestra.
La Fura dels Baus (the duo behind the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics) have transformed Ligeti’s near-masterpiece into a multi-faceted spectacle. A naked 60ft woman squats centre stage, having (according to the film that introduces the opera) had a heart attack from too many grease-burgers. This woman, this body, and this near-death experience remain present physically and symbolically throughout the piece, being interacted with in every conceivable way. For example: Death himself abseils down from her mouth; skeletons are pulled from her nipples; skinless beings protrude from her eye-sockets; snipers tumble from her entrails.
This might seem like too much of a departure since neither Ligeti nor his co-librettist Michael Meschke actually asked for this to happen, but intervention was necessary. The ‘giantess’ provides a fraction of cohesion, reminding everyone that this opera is about the delights of physical excess (everyone is fucking), and the nearness of death (everyone is dying), in a piece that otherwise appears to be flailing in its own outrageousness. Many operas, perhaps most, get by without a good, or deep, or believable narrative, but there has to be something gripping in the structure beyond great music and beyond a witty text.
Baldur Brönnimann mastered Ligeti’s schizophrenic score, percussive rasps were rung, and saccharine string sounds sung. The score is too detailed to bear description of every sumptuous effect, because it did actually contain every effect. The percussion section was particularly vivid and the players’ efforts sparkled among an already glittering experience. There was also an unexpected thrill at the separate brass and wind section located in one of the small, high boxes playing (deliberately) out of step with the main orchestra, conducted by Robert Houssart.
Vocally this was a mixed cast, but since much of the humour in this piece relies on clear and bawdy gallows humour, all of the spoken English needed to be crystal clear. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Susanna Andersson and Andrew Watts sang very well, but the one who really and truly ‘got’ the text and music was bass Frode Olsen, playing the downtrodden victim of an over-the hill nymphomaniac. He was funny whenever he wanted to be, which unfortunately can’t be said of the whole ensemble.
On its own terms this was a total success. The opera achieves its own objectives: to be funny, grotesque and mildly shocking, and the production certainly matches Ligeti’s intentions. There is no law stating that opera has to be psychologically riveting, but an opera without an emotional pivot is a pity.