27 February 2006

Le Grand Macabre

Revisiting another production from the recent past: the American premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. This work was definitely one of the high points of Ms. Rosenberg's tenure as head of the San Francisco Opera. If that season hadn't also featured Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd then it would have been the clear winner that season.

I went to the panel discussion beforehand, which featured most of the singers and the directors. They were very eager to present this work as an adventure and an evening of entertaining theater. They kept stressing that although the music was difficult, it didn't sound that way (I guess what they meant is, this is not Moses und Aron). (Which I love, by the way.) The audience seemed fairly receptive, but then these are people who cared enough to go to a panel discussion. The question session was not as painful as those things sometimes are. My favorite question (and one of my all-time favorites): "Is there any actual music in this work, or is it all sound effects?" I was pondering the philosophical implications of the noise we define as sound effects and the noise we define as music, but the John Cage moment passed as the panel hastily explained that they were referring to a large and creative (one instrument is an inflated paper bag) percussion section, not to pre-recorded funny noises.

Here's the review:

Well, I loved Le Grand Macabre. I had already bought a ticket for a second performance (part of my one-man effort to prove there is a market for the offbeat) and I'm glad. I've heard the two official recordings, and a lot of Ligeti's other music, but this was the first piece I've heard live, and that always makes a difference to me. I was surprised at how gorgeous the music was. (In fact, at times I felt the music was almost too gorgeous.)
On the whole the audience seemed favorable, though clearly quite a few were either baffled or disgusted. When the first scene ended there was one very loud boo; of course, I heard someone boo the same way at the end of Rossini's Otello several years before, because he didn't like the big golden lion that was looming over every scene (he was next to me and explained, not that I asked). The opera company did a very good job of trying to educate/warn people about what they were going to see, so I really don't know why the guy was there -- why not spare yourself the time, money, and trouble if there's not even a chance you'll like it? Or at least wait to the end before deciding. Anyway -- some singers were better at enunciating the English text than others (Sir Willard White was particularly good, but then he's a native speaker, unlike some of the others).
The work has that whole eastern European politically-tinged sense of the absurd and the comically tragic. Many of the classic opera fixtures appeared in witty ways -- there's a bacchanalia a la Samson, a drinking song, two lovers with a mezzo as the man; it was noted often in the program that the aria for the Chief of the Secret Police (a woman) was reminiscent of the Queen of the Night's arias. The structure of the work actually reminded me of La Boheme, of all unlikely things -- there are four short scenes that are linked but not continuous, sort of giving a series of scenes from the life apocalyptic (as opposed to say the four short scenes of Rigoletto, which tell one tight story).
I said some of these things to an elderly usher I ran into on BART on the way home -- he appeared flabbergasted at my opinions, but his opinion was "to each his own" which is fine. This work is closer in style to a type of modernist theater and music that the core opera audience is probably not very familiar with. A lot of people go to the opera for overstuffed sofas, you know?
I think familiarity is the key here. The Magic Flute or Parsifal or Love for Three Oranges are just as strange, if
not stranger (OK, Parsifal is a lot stranger), than Le Grand Macabre; as the years roll by the general audience
will begin to hear the beauty, I think, the way they did for Nozze di Figaro or Rigoletto or Tristan or other works initially considered grotesque or too complex. The anime-style sets worked well -- they were in the spirit but didn't overwhelm the action. I wonder how a Brueghel-style setting (as specified by the composer) would work -- it might have the effect of making the work look quaint or distant.
They made a few changes to the lines of the Black and White Politicians to make them more politically pointed -- I didn't really think this was necessary, but it wasn't inappropriate. Definitely a memorable evening -- well worth seeing and very stage-worthy. I'm curious to see if any other American opera companies pick it up. At the end some of us jumped to our feet to applaud and others to run for the exits; this is how art advances. . . .

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