Ligeti's "Le Grande Macabre," revised 1997 version.
Philharmonia Orchestra/Solonen/Soloists (Sony62312)
Ah, the bane of any new listening experience: expectations.
Take the first scene synopsis of Ligeti's only major opera, "Le Grand
Macabre:" In an abandoned graveyard, the slightly tipsy Piet the Pot sees
a beautiful young couple, Amanda and Amando, searching for a quiet place
where they can secretly make love. Necrotzar suddenly appears, arising
from an open grave, and announces that he is Death in person, and, with
the help of a comet, will destroy the whole world that very night. He
uses Piet as a horse and rides off to meet Prince Go Go. The lovers'
duet is now heard emanating from an empty grave, and soon they will
sleep undisturbed through the coming catastrophe.
I have mentioned previously that I am quite the Ligeti fan. No composer
this side of the Twentieth Century strikes me as so vivid, whimsical,
clever, innovative, sacred and profane, intellectual, and so importantly,
accessible. (Read: I appreciate his aesthetic.) I do not blush when I say
that I regard Ligeti as the heir to Bartok. One could imagine my musical
expectations going into the above first scene. How "gravely" would the
composer of "Lontano" handle Necrotzar and the graveyard scene? Would the
drunken Piet be characterized with music as hilariously inebriated as the
"Tempo de Valse" music of the First String Quartet? And the spiraling
comet! I imagined a full-on orchestral assault based upon that "infinitely
spiraling" Piano Etude.
No such luck. The singing and orchestral accompaniment throughout can be
sharply abstract and declamatory, and Ligeti animates with textures that
are sparse, yet sometimes deeply etched. Even star turns, such as chief
of police Gepopo's super virtuoso "aria" in scene three, is accompanied by
not much more than occasional pitched drums, bells, muted solo brass, and
imitative woodwind. Some dialogue is in sprechgesang. Much of the sung
dialogue goes for many measures with no accompaniment, and when there *is*
accompaniment, it may be nothing more the a bass-drum thwack here, or a
bassoon riff there. Do I like this music?
There *are* more than a few moments when Ligeti's expected orchestral
wizardry comes to the fore. Two highlights: The lover's duet between
Amando and Amanda, (sop. and mezzo sop. in scene one), is hauntingly
beautiful and sounds like post-Bartokian night music. (The lovers were
originally named Sp*rmando and Cl*toria, but those names were censured in
the libretto of the first available recording; as if a young person with
prurient interests would ask to be directed to the Wergo section of a
record store.) And during the orchestral interlude after Nekrotzar imagines
he has destroyed the world, (scene four), Ligeti writes music that sounds
as if it's literally sliding down a wall--you must hear to believe.
To make a long, farcical story short; we are introduced to a variety of
characters throughout the opera that are, shall we say, indulgent and
extreme; and we get to watch how they act/react to the knowledge that the
world is about to end. Two of my favorite personality profiles are the
leaders of the opposing political/theological parties, (introduced by a
doorbell prelude), whose bickering turns so ugly that they are surprised to
be publicly rebuked by the usually non-interventionist Prince Go Go. Hurt,
they tender their resignations and announce that they will speak no more.
(A brief reconciliation follows, all too quickly, before the ugliness
starts all over again. Satire lives!) And speaking of satire, the opera
works just fine as a farce, but I leave it to others on the list to
enlighten us, if they want to, regarding the libretto's many layers of
political and social metaphor.
The opera is in English, recorded live, and the audience is not as quiet
as it could have been--coughs and sneezes and laughter are plainly audible.
Though first not too impressed, I find that the characters and music of Le
Grande *do* haunt the memory. I have a hunch that stage action and visuals
play an unusually important role in this work, consequently making it more
difficult to get "caught up in the action", but a careful reading of the
synopsis helps, as the story doesn't always make sense on its own.
If you are already a Ligeti fan, you'll want to add this opera to your
collection. If you are not, I would definitely start with "Atmospheres"
and "Lontano," (on DG with Abbado/VPO), The Violin/Cello/Piano Concerti,
(on DG with Boulez/EI), and the Piano Etudes, (on Sony with Pierre-Laurent
John Smyth <[log in to unmask]>