Friday, May 28, 2010

Le Grand Macabre

Alan Gilbert deserves eternal high esteem for bringing Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre to the New York Philharmonic this weekend. (And on Memorial Day Weekend no less! Hey everyone, happy Memento-Mori-al Day.) I'm a little surprised it was the New York premiere of the opera. Everyone else involved also deserves similar esteem for bringing it off so successfully. The production isn't without a couple of flaws, but it's no slam dunk for this to work on an orchestra stage, and it most definitely does. There was a full and very enthusiastic house tonight.

I thought I had a bead on the opera at intermission, pegging its absurdist slapstick rhythm. (I'd listened to parts of it on CD before, but never the whole thing.) But the second act, gloriously, broadens, expands, and spreads its bony wings, turning into one of the the best stretches of opera in the twentieth century.

I didn't actually read this synopsis of the opera on Wikipedia, but I'm sure it's probably mostly accurate. For your reference!

The singers, all of them, were acrobatically adept and completely fearless -- I'm not going to even attempt to write enough to do them justice. (Fearlessness extends to costumes, elements of which included skintight nude-colored leotards, a pair of stilts, and a round pincushion-like suit. Plus the chief of secret police's spider disguise, which is specified by the libretto.) It's amazing to me that vocalists can even execute repertoire like this in the first place. Acoustically, there's some orchestral burial, and it's difficult to follow much of the libretto.

The staging is built around a screen, framed as a creepy sunburst shape, onto which is projected live film of manipulated drawings and models, designed and directed by Douglas Fitch. The aesthetic is a kind of real-time avant-garde Terry Gilliam animation, germane to Ligeti's goings-on. There's more than enough room for the apparatus to fit onstage with the orchestra, and it's a canny choice of art. It never feels squeezed or hemmed in.

But Ligeti is the undisputed star here, Ligeti of the strange harmonies and car horns and a soundworld unto its own weird self. The first act famously starts with those car horns, antique-style handheld squeeze-bulb horns, played in precise counterpoint by the percussionists. (On hearing taxis on Broadway after the show, I kept thinking, No, crisper! More polyphony!) From there it's mostly an affair of careening vocal lines punctuated with orchestral slapstick, or at least it is till after halftime. The second act, again, is where the show really gets into gear, reeling off several consecutive setpiece scenes each unforgettable for their own reasons.

The secret police chief (here the trim and utterly kickass soprano Barbara Hannigan) fires off a couple of paranoid, borderline incoherent warnings to Prince Go-Go about the coming cataclysm. The chorus, as the populace of Breughelland, raucously boos the prince's ministers but cheers the prince himself. Hand-cranked sirens and heavy percussion indicate that something disturbing is afoot. Nekrotzar, the titular macabre, enters to a passacaglia procession with a jaunty bass line, a mistuned solo violin sawing away, and layers of orchestral instruments growing more chaotic above. Brass on the balconies occasionally announce a fractured fanfare that stands in for death's trumpet calls. Nekrotzar gets hammered on wine with his two dissolute Breughellandian attendants, clipped vocal lines going in out-of-sync tick-tock counterpoint with orchestral slashes and jarring pipe-organ blurts. Nekrotzar then sings mellowly about the destruction he has wrought on earth, over a luscious, ambrosial underscore. Midnight is struck, abstractly and unsettlingly -- Ligeti lets you know that time itself is dissipating. The world ends in eerie, static consonances, and existential statuses are examined in the Epilogue in similar sonic circumstances. Nekrotzar, realizing he has not extinguished life after all, melts away to murmuring strings so tonally eroded it's hard to call them either consonant or dissonant. The conclusion is a surprisingly uplifting chorus about living for the day and not dwelling on death. Marvelously, and with a barbed edge, it's a transfiguration of Nekortzar's procession from earlier in the act.

Make no mistake, Ligeti was one of the great tonal composers. But he only used those consonances when he meant it. They're sweeter for their sharp contrast with the prevailing atonal absurdity, which is in turn stronger for the juxtaposition. The opera's got a few instances of completely jaw-dropping acoustical marvels, especially some major-key chords with an otherworldly resonance to them. Meanwhile there are all manner of hazy, ambiguous consonances, especially toward the end of the opera. In a brilliant moment after the supposed end of Breughelland, someone sings that he hears harps from the heaven above. What's actually going on in the orchestra is an unplaceable static hum with a couple of harmonicas tracing simple upward melodies.

It's rare stuff, and it evaporates off the surface of your aural memory very quickly. Precious little of it I can really hang on to even a couple of hours later. The visuals, happily, should stick around for a while longer.

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