LIGETI – LEGRAND MACABRE — PHILHARMONIA ORCHESTRA ESA-PEKKA SALONEN — THÉÂTRE DU CHÂTELET, PARIS — FEBRUARY 1998 — CD
LIGETI – LE GRAND MACABRE — SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS OF THE GRAN TEATRE DEL LICEU — MICHAEL BODER — CHORUS MASTER JOSE LUIS BASSO — STAGE DIRECTION ÀLEX OLLE (LA FURA DELS BAUS) IN COLLABORATION WITH VALENTINA CARRASCO — SET DESIGNER: ALFONS FLORES — BARCELONA, SPAIN — NOVEMBER 2011 — DVD
One time is not all the time, and for once I will start with the music. This supposedly anti-opera uses the orchestra and some “instruments” that are not real instruments with great imagination and great creativity. The car horn prelude opens the opera, and a second car horn prelude opens the second scene of the opera. A doorbell prelude opens the second part of the opera, the third scene of it. A simple Interlude will open the fourth scene which is the epilogue. The finale of this epilogue will be a passacaglia. The first three opening pieces are, of course, surprising on an opera stage, but car horns, doorbells, bicycle bells, train noises and many other noises of this industrial and urban type have been used regularly and even systematically by Pierre Schaefer to only quote one and he did that at the end of the second world war in Paris and went on doing it to his very end. And what about Steve Reich and his “Different Trains”? I guess the beautifully dressed Dames, Madams and Ladies in Paris Opera who had brought eggs for the end of the premiere of the creation of this opera with Daniel Mesguich as stage director in 1981 must have been shocked by this music that sounded like the noise in the streets of Paris at rush hours, and probably by the obscene language and at least erotic situations. Or maybe they were only afraid of death, I mean Death, and even maybe D-D-D-EATH, though for them surviving death with sex might be slightly too enticing to be true.
What is a lot more interesting at the level of the music is, in fact, the great flexibility in styles and genres that stick so well to the great varieties of situations and characters in the opera? The two lovers, Amando and Amanda, originally named in a far more explicit way Spermando and Clitoria by the original storyteller Michel de Ghelderode, the two lovers then who start the opera with a love scene and close the opera with another love scene, quite explicit indeed and surprising on an opera stage with noises, moanings, and other gruntings, supposedly of pleasure, bliss, rapture, ecstasy or simple enjoyment. I guess it is more acceptable for some of the Paris bourgeoise ladies since the two lovers are two sopranos, two women. That’s my next remark on this music. The voices are treated and processed as if they were instruments of their own. The voices melt into the instruments and the instruments engulf the voices to get to some kind of Brownian soup in which every note or every guttural bangarang jumps, bounds, and rebounds, jostles with others in some kind of constant evanescent and yet overpowering composition, opposition, competition and struggle for survival. We are absolutely crushed into some kind of human pulp by this music and the voices. Very often the words evade us because the voices are over-imposed onto one another, distorted or very often reduced to shouts, cries and even howling calls.
But is that an anti-opera? We all know that since the invention of the oratorio or the opera in Beauvais cathedral at the end of the 13th century for the Nativity festivities there (“Ludus Danielis” by anonymous) it has often been the case when some irregular means, some disruptive attempts were used by the composers, such as popular instruments like bells and other percussions in the afore-mentioned “Ludus Danielis,” and the braying of a donkey in the same; dancing and ballet interludes by Mozart in “The Marriage of Figaro” against the wish of the Emperor; or the use of films like in “Lulu” by Alban Berg. This opera is visual, I would even say excessively visual, eruptively visual, and the sound is supposed to make the audience get lost in the visual elements and in the various cultural, biblical or not, allusions on which it is constructed. We hence need a music that perturbs our psyche and yet mesmerizes us into some kind of unconscious loss of our cultural good manners (meaning our good conditioning and training, if not taming, the taming of the wild beast deep in our lower self), and it is fun to accept that deep dive into a world of eroticism, even soft pornography, rude words, and other insults and swear words. And yet somewhere there is a political discourse that burns and churns under the obscenities and the gross situations.
Just for this reason, concerning the music, I would advise listeners or watchers, in short, the audience to let their censorship drop and to abandon themselves in the pleasurable jubilation of being beyond the rules of good bourgeois society. It is so funny to break rules and to know that after the more-than-two-hour show of delinquency and depravity we will be able to go back out into the street and return to normalcy and humdrum life. After all, that was the objective of so many works by Johann Sebastian Bach who brought his congregation to communion with the Lord, and yet as soon as they stepped out of the church they went back to the gross, poor and cruel society they had left out behind them for something like one hour or two, back to sinning, stealing and killing if necessary. And the opening of the opera with “Dies Irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in…” is a good introduction to what we are going to experience. A famous Tenebrae, or if you prefer Requiem. Let’s go down into the grave with some dead corpses and enjoy the night of the interment. And at the end of the opera, the English translation “All is done,” and the Latin translation “Consummatum est” of Jesus’s last words “Tam ve’nishlam” is the end of the whole interment, hence the signal the time has come for resurrection. From love to love via the destruction of the whole world at midnight and its resurrection with sunrise, we have a strange version of the death of Jesus and his subsequent disappearance from the grave, but the whole thing set as a farce, as an anti-story of our basic western myth. I will not enter too many details, after all, we all have that culture in reference, in obedience or simply in acquaintance. You have to enjoy the opera and discover the hidden meaning all by yourself because the meaning is deeply buried, interred, entombed in your own impulses and instincts. In our world where God is dead, as is well-known, we have to see what it can become in our minds today. It is a nightmare in many ways but a funny, very protected nightmare, like Dante’s descent into hell and coming out of it through the bottom entrance, in fact, the basement exit of the devil himself.
If you take it as a big metaphor of an upside-down apocalypse, you may find it funny, very enjoyable. And fun has no limits. The king of this strange Breughelland, a portmanteau word Brueghel-Hell-land, is called Go-go, like any go-go girls in some bar (“Let me have a sip of vodka from your belly-button!”), and of course, he is a countertenor to emphasize this trans-gender aspect of the story. Amando is a soprano, so why shouldn’t Go-Go be a countertenor. It is, of course, taking the Mickey bliss out of the old baroque tradition to have a castrato singing the main Biblical character in operas and oratorios, like King David for one example. So, we are entering the worst nightmarish Flemish paintings of all times, we are descending into gravissimo hell, and yet we are only visiting the Queen of Hearts (even if you are used to calling a spade a spade) and her Hatter (Twinkle Twinkle Little Piet… the Pot, and the water pot breaks on the doorstep… top the grave) in Wonderland. But this Prince Go-Go is going to fight against a Tsar mind you, Nekrotzar, who is the king of hell himself, the big lean and even skeletal reaper who is going to be completely fooled around by all the characters. Nekrotzar will decree the end of the world and yet he will fail like a defeated Puck who hardly succeeds to repair the dumb things and situations he created with his antics. At the end of the couplet, right at the end of the sonnet, when all wine has been drawn and drunk, as is well known, me, myself, and I will prick you with my phallic or penile sword, right in the middle of your stomach. And during that time Amanda and Amando have taken refuge in a dark tomb to do what we know they are doing, what we can imagine they are doing. Two dirty pigs in a grave pigsty, like “Romeo and Juliet” revisited on the sly. Go-Go has two ministers, one white and one black, a white man dressed in red and a black man dressed in blue in the Barcelonan version, and the two ministers could not care less for the state business. They are self-centered onto their egotistic umbilical exhaust pipe of their vanity and pride and they resign as often as necessary just for fun. But behind these operetta political clowns, there is the serious head of all spying security, Gepopo, which is in French a scatological reference to some chamber pot in baby-speak and the business that goes along with it. He is the shady side of Go-Go since all kings need to have a dark being controlling the situation that politicians can’t even cope with. A farce again? A metaphor one more time? Certainly! Definitely! The metaphor of a post-Nazi society that is not really abiding by this extreme ideology, but that is playing hooky with democracy and is relying on this menace as the necessary beacon that tells us there is a limit here that must not be crossed and we play, in the back of this beacon who is more often asleep than awake, the game of “Let’s go beyond the cliff and see if it really falls straight vertical into the sea.”
The Barcelonan production adds to all that ranting and raving about the Apocalypse, the Passion of Jesus Christ, another visual dimension. The stage is entirely occupied by a nude gigantic woman sprawled on all fours. She will be everything and the rest, play all roles in one, all props in one, all sizes in one: a mountain climbed up and down by many characters; a prison for bad boys or girls, who cares; some panic-room with three coppers at the end in Yellow Vests trying to do what exactly); a refuge from death or a buffet with wine and goodies; a brothel with as many pleasures as you like or a cozy bedroom lolling in the cleavage of her breasts. That nude lady turns several times from a front position to a sideways position, the right side, and even a couple of time backside position and you can imagine that Dante’s exit from hell, the backside cleavage will be experimented by several nosy characters, in and out, in and out like in “Clockwork Orange.” The thigh can open, the backside can open, and the body becomes a tunnel or a highway from the stage to the wings and vice versa. This nude woman’s body, what’s more, is used as a screen and from a Fellinian setting she turns into a skeleton or her skin is nothing but a screen onto which all kinds of atrocious pictures, or even once the flames of hell can appear, live and die. This nude lady is well-wrapped in layers of fat and several characters are just the same. Piet the Pot is even frankly obese, and he loves caressing and showing, exposing even, his skin, his flesh, and his excessive fat. Piet is a drunkard, a wino and a blissfully concentrated person, concentrated on pleasure, immediate pleasure and trying to avoid the hangover on the following morning. A difficult endeavor and not elementary at all, in spite of what Doctor Watson may say. Or is it Sherlock Holmes?
When you have said all that, you have said nothing. You need to confront yourself with the standard interpretation that it is a funny staging of a metaphysical reflection on death. In front of death, you should accept the idea that you are alone, that there is nothing beyond and that you only have the “me-now-here” dimension of life. “When one enjoys the joys of love … Let others fear the Judgement Day: we have no fears, let come what may! ‘Neath terrors dire let others bow: for us, there’s only here and now, just here and now! … just here and now!” But that is so trite, so banal, so void and fake that we find this moral (the very end of the opera) a paltry and laughable conclusion. Nekrotzar, Lord Macabre, and Le Grand Macabre are nothing but the new trinity of Flemish morbid black humor and set up in this music and in this setting, and in this stage production, any stage production, it becomes an enormous sniggering roar of Ghelderode at our gullibility. And Nekrotzar becomes an embodiment of the Flemish Till Eulenspiegel, that anarchistic trickster that still controls so many minds in Flanders. And Richard Strauss dances in his grave. I just wonder if, for some, this Tsar, this Nekrotzar is not an embodiment of Putin. Or Lenin if you prefer. Forget about Stalin.
The last remark I would like to add is about the use of language in this opera. Language is really completely exploded at times into repetitive alliterations and assonances, and even into chaotic, yet structured, decomposed sounds and words. Stammering is the major rule of the characters. Stammer and stutter and there will always be some disquieting shuddering in the backs of the audience who will turn around and look behind to make sure there is no demon in the back of the room. It is true. What use is it to speak out words and sing out sentences when anyway you don’t understand a syllable of the foreign language on the stage, either because you don’t speak it at all, or because the operatic articulation makes it inaudible. So why not reduce or amplify this language into simple vocalizations of syllables of that new operatic language which is titillating your ears with the “kikeriki, kukuriku, kekerikeke, kokorikoko, kukurikuku, etc. etc. etc.” of some “cha-chee-cho-choo-cha!” that reinvents the syllabic Maya writing system. That becomes so funny and enjoyable that you let yourself go back into your seat, your armchair, your deep sofa, and LOL! LOL! LOL! You start c*mming to terms with your mental fire and the apocalyptic explosion you are experiencing all over, inside out and outside in, from your toes to your scalp, and all that started with the singing of a cock, your cock, in the poultry-yard of some farm when the sun finally rose after this nighttime “Dream of a Witches Sabbath,” in fact a phantasmagorical “Night on a Bald Mountain.” And we are finally introduced to some Halloween celebration and we can imagine “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and Nekrotzar becomes Freddy Krueger jumping out of some frightening painting by Piet-thePot-er Brueghel the Elder. And we all know Till Eulenspiegel’s methodical trick to empty hospitals: call for one volunteer to be turned into powder you will serve to all the sick people as a cure to all diseases with a choice of fluid, chocolate, coffee, tea, or simple schnapps.
Be it read, listened to, watched or simply dreamed like that, this opera is a masterpiece that the afore-mentioned Paris bourgeoise ladies, heavily weaponed as they were with eggs, did not appreciate because of their lack of the morbid black humor that is plainly necessary to survive in this world, in this life till death us parts from our fleshy carapace.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU