Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars

18 Feb 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • György Ligeti
    Le Grand Macabre (revised 1996 version) (124 min.)

    Pavlo Hunka Baritone (Nekrotzar), Peter Hoare Tenor (Piet the Pot), Anthony Roth Costanzo Countertenor (Prince Go-Go), Anna Prohaska Soprano (Amanda), Ronnita Miller Mezzo-Soprano (Amando), Heidi Melton Soprano (Mescalina), Frode Olsen Bass (Astradamors), Audrey Luna Soprano (Venus and Gepopo), Joshua Bloom Bass (Black-Party Minister), Peter Tantsits Tenor (White-Party Minister), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

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    Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars on Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” (15 min.)

Ligeti had a good sense of humour. This is shown not only in his famous Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, but also in his lunatic opera Le Grand Macabre, which Sir Simon Rattle programmed for the 2016/2017 season: the work, based on the play La Balade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, is a grotesque parable about war, enriched with elements from the theatre of the absurd, the mediaeval dance of death and a wild carnival. “In Grand Macabre I turned death upside down,” Ghelderode said in an interview in 1956. “I made him into a comical character. That was my revenge, and that was also the revenge that life took on him.” Ligeti, who himself experienced the horrors of war and several times barely escaped death (“By chance I survived”), said in regards to the driving forces behind his opera: “It is the fear of death, the apotheosis of the fear and overcoming the fear through comedy, through humour, through the grotesque.“

The play is set in the fictional city of Breughelland, a totalitarian and completely run-down banana republic, in which such illustrious figures wreak havoc as the cake-loving Prince Go-Go, Mescalina, the wife of the court astrologer Astradamor, who keeps giant spiders, Gepopo, chief of the Secret Political Police, and Nekrotzar, the “Great Macabre”, a more than dubious character. After Nekrotzar announces the end of the world due to a comet colliding with the earth, everyone panics: while the people beg for mercy, Go-Go, Nekrotzar and the other courtiers drink themselves into a stupor so that in their state of intoxication they miss the end of the world. On the next morning, they are all lively (though with a heavy hangover) – all of them except the “Great Macabre” who asserted that he is death incarnate. “If he were death himself,” said Ligeti, “then death is now dead, eternal life has begun and earth is at one with heaven: the Last Judgement has taken place. Should he however merely have been a conceited charlatan and a dark and false messiah and his mission merely words, life will continue as normal – one day everyone will die, but not today, not immediately.”

As in the previous season with Pelléas et Mélisande, Peter Sellars transforms the Philharmonie into a theatre with his staging of Le Grand Macabre. And you can be sure that something surprising occurs to him with this material. You can experience as soloists British bass-baritone Christopher Purves as Nekrotzar and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Go-Go, about whom the New York Post attested “quirky comic timing”.

“Farce noire”

György Ligeti’s Opera Le Grand Macabre

On the Way to Macabre

In the postscript to his historical murder mystery The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco observes: “I believe that every age reaches moments of crisis like those described by Nietzsche in the second of the Untimely Considerations, on the harmfulness of the study of history. The sense that the past is restricting, smothering, blackmailing us. The historical avant-garde ... tries to settle its accounts with the past. ... But there comes a moment when the avant-garde can go no further ... The postmodern response to the modern consists instead of recognizing that the past – since it may not be destroyed, for its destruction results in silence – must be revisited ironically, in a way which is not innocent.”

The pendulum swing described by Eco, between a phase in which there is an attempt to break completely with tradition and confront it anew under different circumstances, also occurs in the history of opera during the second half of the 20th century. Whereas traditionalist composers continued the operatic developments of the past in the 1950s and 60s, members of the avant-garde regarded traditional opera as an obsolete genre. György Ligeti was one of the composers who sought a radical renewal of opera. In the early 1960s he composed one of the seminal works of experimental music theatre, Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, for three singers and seven instrumentalists. A decade later, however, the experimental ideas of the avant-garde increasingly seemed to be exhausted. At the height of experimental music theatre the opera of the past was merely a negative foil from which one could not distance oneself enough; now, under different circumstances, there was growing interest in it again. A striking example of this development is Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre.In the work, which was composed between 1974 and 1977, the composer attempts to “revisit” the genre of opera and its 400-year history in the postmodern age “with irony” and “without innocence”.

An “Anti-Anti-Opera”?

Ligeti had already toyed with the idea of composing a work for the operatic stage during the 1960s. Although he initially planned a piece in the style of Aventures, he gradually abandoned his original idea: “I not only needed a clearly understandable plot, but also an equally clear and understandable sung and spoken text. From the ‘anti-opera’ emerged an ‘anti-anti-opera’, then on another level, once again, an ‘opera’.”

Although Ligeti later wanted the anti-anti-opera to be understood as wordplay, he points out an essential characteristic of Grand Macabre. The work, which the composer thoroughly revised in 1996, is neither a traditional opera nor an avant-garde anti-opera. These two contrasting styles are nevertheless the existential condition of Grand Macabre and are preserved, so to speak, in this “anti-anti-opera”.

The two-hour work is based on the absurd play La Balade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode (1898–1962). It takes place in the imaginary principality of Breughelland at an unspecified time. Ligeti’s colourful depiction of a world full of drunkenness, sexual debauchery, fear of death, violence and corruption was inspired by the vivid and visionary paintings of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The absurd plot focusses around the title character of the opera, the Great Macabre Nekrotzar. Driven by a fanatic sense of mission, he poses as death and claims he will destroy the whole world with the aid of a comet. Shortly before midnight at the court of the gluttonous, infantile prince Go-Go, where the world is supposed to come to an end, Nekrotzar goes on a drinking binge so excessive that he lets the predicted inferno pass in a drunken stupor without taking action.

“Suppressing Fear through Alienation”

Vulgar sensuality and absurd comedy confront us with unparalleled intensity in LeGrand Macabre. It should not be mistaken for superficiality or triviality, however. Behind the grotesque presentation is an attempt to ward off the frightening aspects of the world with the help of comedy and humour. “My opera is a kind of black farce, an absurd piece, humorous yet also absolutely tragic ... . The work centres around the fear of death, the impossibility of altering fate and the actions and efforts one vainly undertakes to escape the reality of death. One of the strategies (or dreams) used to avoid this fate is the attempt to turn death into a joke.”

Ligeti’s lifelong penchant for the grotesque was not only a means of – at least temporarily – “suppressing fear through alienation”, however. He was equally fascinated by the ambiguity that can be created by humour, irony and alienation. The contradictions and grotesque exaggeration of the figure of Nekrotzar allow several interpretations. Some of his characteristics make him seem like a caricature of the young Hitler; others resemble the demonic central figure of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s classic vampire film Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror (1922). And, according to Ligeti, at the end of the opera it remains completely open “whether the Great Macabre is really death or an ordinary charlatan, albeit transfigured and elevated to heroism through his sense of mission”. Everything is and will remain “ambiguous and equivocal”.

Echoes and Allusions

LeGrand Macabre is not a stylistically coherent stage work but a complex fabric that pulls together a multitude of cultural threads. On the musical level Ligeti achieves his goal through the compositional exploration of diverse forms of art and popular music. The spectrum ranges from 14th-century vocal music to Ligeti, from Romanian folk music to Ella Fitzgerald to Pink Floyd. Operatic tradition itself naturally plays an important role. According to the composer, throughout the work one finds “certain archetypes from the history of the genre. Not quotations, but reflections”. The prelude to the first scene already makes it clear that the connection is often ironically broken. The toccata for twelve car horns is a bizarre homage to the famous Intrada from Monteverdi’s Orfeo – a key document of early opera. The “denatured, awkward” sound of the modern signal instruments that replace Monteverdi’s trumpets and trombones evokes various associations. For one thing, it reveals the parodistic character of this overture, perhaps the most unusual in operatic history. For another, according to the composer, it symbolizes “the broken world of Breughelland”. Grotesquely exaggerated devices thus characterize both the stage action and the music. Crucial for both levels – as the composer never tired of emphasizing – is the abandonment of every form of clarity: “Everything is false, everything is blurred, nothing is clear. That is very important, because we are in a land and at a place that is completely disorganized and chaotic. Therefore, the work must remain ambiguous, just as it was conceived ... We don’t know what will happen!”

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Peter Hoare was born in Bradford and initially trained as a percussionist, before starting his singing career. The tenor mad his debut at Welsh National Opera, where his many roles have included Herod (Salome), Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos), Laca (Jenůfa), Captain (Wozzeck)and Mal in the world premiere of James MacMillanʼs The Sacrifice. His extensive repertoire encompasses everything from the more mainstream works to Zimmermannʼs Die Soldaten, Tippettʼs A Child of Our Time, Turnageʼs Anna Nicole und Raskatovʼs The Dog’s Heart. Peter Hoare can be seen regularly at both the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and English National Opera in London as well as at opera houses across Europe and the USA. In concert Peter Hoare has appeared with the Royal Concertbebouw Orchestra under Daniel Harding (Das Lied von der Erde), the Philharmonia Orchestra London, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has worked with many eminent conductors such as Mark Elder, Daniel Harding, Sir Charles Mackerras and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The tenor made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2003 in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Most recently, Peter Hoare sang in John Adamsʼs oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary in January 2017, equally conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Pavlo Hunka was born in England, the son of a Ukrainian father and an English mother. He qualified as a Linguist and then practised as a Lawyer in the United Kingdom for four years before embarking on a singing career. He began his vocal studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and completed them in Switzerland with Kammersängerin Maria Sandulescu. He began his operatic career in Basel, Switzerland. For the last 27 years, he has sung in opera houses around the world, including Paris, Vienna, Munich, Florence, Amsterdam, Moscow, London, Salzburg, Berlin, and under conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Semyon Bychkov, Zubin Mehta, Kirill Petrenko and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pavlo Hunkaʼs repertoire includes Don Pizarro (Fidelio), Schigolch (Lulu), Tomsky (Pique Dame), Klingsor (Parsifal), Hunding (Die Walküre), Shishkov (From the House of the Dead), Simone (The Florentine Tragedy) and the title roles in Wozzeck, Falstaff and Macbeth. Pavlo is Artistic Director of the Ukrainian Art Song Project, whose aim is to record an anthology of over 1,000 Ukrainian classical art songs by 26 Ukrainian composers. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994 in a concert production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, which was also performed at Salzburg Easter Festival the following year. His last appearance here was in June 2015 in Jonathans Doveʼs children’s opera The Monster in the Maze, conducted bySir Simon Rattle.

Frode Olsen was born in Oslo and studied at the National Opera Conservatory. From 1982 until 1986 he was a member of the ensemble at Deutsche Oper am Rhein. His career has taken him to international opera houses such as Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, De Vlaamse Opera Antwerp, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Semperoper Dresden, Staatsoper Hamburg, Oslo Opera House, and the festivals in Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence. His most important roles include the title role in Messiaenʼs Saint François d’Assise, Astradamors (Le Grand Macabre) King Mark (Tristan und Isolde), Gurnemanz (Parsifal), Wotan (Die Walküre), Pimen (Boris Godunov), Doktor in Berg’s Wozzeck and Arkel in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Frode Olsen has worked with renowned directors includingPeter Konwitschny, Luc Bondy, David Pountney, Peter Sellars, Willy Decker and conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Marc Albrecht, William Christie, Kent Nagano and Antonio Pappano.In concert, the bass regularly performs in works such as Verdiʼs Requiem, Rossiniʼs Petite Messe solennelle, Dvořákʼs Stabat mater, Handelʼs Messiah, Haydnʼs Creation and Beethovenʼs Missa solemnis. Frode Olsen is appearing for the first time in concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Peter Sellars is one of the most unconventional and innovative theatre and opera directors of our times. Central to his work on literary subjects is his desire to highlight their relevance to the political and social questions of today. On graduating from the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in 1975, he studied literature and music at Harvard University, making his debut as a stage director in New York in 1980. After a further period of study in Asia, he became director of the Boston Shakespeare Company in 1983 and the following year was appointed director of the American National Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Sellars came to international attention as an opera director when his productions of Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni were broadcast on American television, leading to invitations to appear in major houses all over the world, including the Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Vienna Festivals, the San Francisco Opera and the Opéra National de Paris. He has championed the creation of many new works, with long-time collaborator John Adams, such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and works by Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. Peter Sellars has received numerous honours (MacArthur Fellowship and the Erasmus Prize among others) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. The collaboration between Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker began in April 2010 with the St Matthew Passion, followed by the St John Passion in 2014. As part of his residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the 2015-16 season, his most recent project was the staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in December 2015.

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