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”.