September 14, 2009 / 11:28 AM / 9 years ago

Hungarian Ligeti's "Macabre" opera hits at fascism

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It starts with a prelude of car horns and ends with the world being destroyed by a comet — or possibly not.

On top of that, a new staging of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s absurdist opera “Le Grand Macabre,” opening on Thursday (Sept 17) at the English National Opera (, takes place inside the torso of a 17-m tall by 8-m wide plastic woman nicknamed “Claudia.”

“We came up with the body as a universe to serve for the stage,” said Alex Olle, one of the directors from the Catalan street theater company La Fura dels Baus, famous for staging the opening ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and which has mounted the new production of “Le Grand Macabre” for the ENO and other houses.

“We couldn’t decide at first if it should be male or female but we chose a woman because there was more space,” Olle added, deadpan.

Ligeti’s 1978 opera, heavily revised in 1997, is a modern amorality tale replete with debauchery, sex, sadomasochism, spies, treachery, cupidity, drinking, more drinking, a bit of cross-dressing and plenty of humor, not to mention one of the great modern opera scores of the past half century.

But staging has always been a problem for this troubled 20th-century masterpiece whose pricklish creator, probably best known to a wider public for the soaring crescendo director Stanley Kubrick used in his science fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” publicly condemned the first production of the revised version in 1997.

We’ll never know what Ligeti, who died in 2006, would have made of the staging the Catalans have devised for the ENO and other European opera companies, but one thing is certain: opera and theater lovers alike will elbow their way to the ticket booth for the six-night run of what is certain to be one of the most talked-about productions on the London stage this year.

“It’s really hilarious, it’s sometimes very absurd humor, sometimes obscene, but it has everything in it,” said Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, who sings the role of Piet the Pot, a drunkard whose profession is “winetaster” and who serves as the opera’s “everyman.”

Some of the music may be complicated and demanding — although the instrumentation is colorful, calling at one point for a rubber duck — but Ablinger-Sperrhacke thinks Ligeti’s message is simple:

“I would say it’s people should make love, drink, eat and enjoy their lives and see if the catastrophe is really coming or not.”

Theater is front and center in this staging by La Fura, which has branched out from its street-theater roots and recently mounted a well-received, acrobatic production of Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” cycle in Valencia.

During the car-honking prelude, a video is projected showing a singer, whose real name is Claudia, in a room with a book of Breughel, the 16th-century Dutch master whose images of split-open torsos and medieval tortures fascinated Ligeti and gave the name to the opera’s fictional setting in a country called “Breughelland.”

She eats something from a box labeled “Big Macabre,” drinks, smokes and suffers a spasm in which she may or may not die, but which is the cue for the opera to begin, inside the plastic mock up of her body.

This is not any old giant plastic female body on a stage. Claudia’s head moves and serves as an observatory for the lingerie-clad court astronomer, Astradamors, whose wife Mescalina whips him in the morning and threatens him with a roasting spit.

“It all has to be done musically — you have to sing and speak and whip and they all have to be in the right place,” said British soprano Susan Bickley, who does a lot of contemporary music but has never sung anything quite like Mescalina.

Claudia’s buttocks open up to reveal a well-stocked bar for a disco scene — to celebrate the end of the world. And her breasts, well...

It is all very diverting but Ligeti, who was Jewish and lost most of his family in the Holocaust, and who fled Hungary in 1956 to escape the repression of the post-war communist regime, based his opera on a 1930s play by the Belgian playwright Michel Ghelderode, whose “Ballad of the Grand Macabre” is about fascism thriving in a climate of fear.

La Fura’s Valentina Carrasco, who worked with Olle on the staging, said the opera is a warning about those who stir up and magnify fear for their own ends.

“I think he (Ligeti) probably had a close experience of those things,” Carrasco said. “That’s how he felt, and he had to deliver that message.”

(Gyorgy Ligeti’s opera “Le Grande Macabre” is in repertoire at the ENO through October 9)

Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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