Le Grand Macabre

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Composer: György Ligeti

Libretto: György Ligeti & Michael Meschke

Based on a 1934 play by Michel de Ghelderode

First Produced: Stockholm, 1978

Present revised version: Salzburg, 1996

Present Company: Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011

Stage direction: La Fura dels Baus & Valentina Carrasco

Sets: Alfons Flores

Costumes: Lluc Castells

Lighting: Peter van Praet

Video effects: Franc Aleu

Video Director: Xavi Bové

Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Conductor: Michael Boder



Piet the Pot: Chris Merritt

Armando: Inés Moraleda

Amanda: Ana Puche

Nekrotzar: Werner Van Mechelen

Astradamors: Frode Olsen

Mescalina: Ning Liang

Venus / Gepopo Chief: Barbara Hannigan

Price Go-Go: Brian Asawa

White Minister: Francisco Vas

Black Minister: Simon Butteriss

Ruffiak: Gabriel Diap

Schabiack: Miquel Rosales

Schabernack: Ramon Grau



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-25

Opera: 16.66 GB

Bit Rate: Low (12~18 Mbps)

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English PCM 2.0 stereo

Opera Subtitles: Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean & Catalan

Region: All

Opera runtime: 122 minutes

Arthaus Musik 2012



Conception & Staging: A+

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: B

Audio: A

Extras Features: B+

Recommendation: A-



You might think it more than coincidence that a Jew, born in Transylvania (yes, there really is a Transylvania) and a Holocaust survivor, would find his way into the theatre of the absurd and more to the present point, a stage work of the Grand Macabre.

The name of György Ligeti may not be familiar, but it is unlikely that you have gotten this far without hearing his music and falling under its spell.  Remember that trippy visual sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Jupiter & Beyond” I think it was called.  That’s Ligeti’s 1961 Atmosphères, heard in its entirety on the soundtrack. Kubrick doesn’t stop there: in addition to familiar excerpts of music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss Jr and Khatchaturian’s Gayane, he borrows significantly from Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and Requiem, and an electronic reworking of another piece, Adventures.  Alas, if you are expecting music in a similar vein here, you will find it only rarely in Le Grand Macabre, a far more complex work, tonally and texturally.



In 1977, Ligeti completed his only opera thirteen years after its initial commission. Loosely based on Michel de Ghelderode’s 1934 play, La Balade du grand macabre, it is a work of “Absurd theatre -  Ligeti called it an "anti-anti-opera" - an opera with an ironic recognition of both operatic traditions and anti-operatic criticism of the genre.  In the opera, Death (Nekrotzar) arrives in the fictional city of Breughell and announces that the end of the world will occur at midnight. Panic, fear, and our unique form of insanity ensue.

Musically, for long stretches, Le Grand Macabre draws on techniques not associated with Ligeti's previous work.  It is Absurd theatre writ large and operatic, made all the more so by the wild and crazy staging of La Fura dels Baus’ Álex Ollé & Valentina Carrasco, with sets by Alfons Flores and costumes by Lluc Castells.  Ligeti’s music is equally absurdist, in that he mixes inconsistent and antagonistic historical harmonic and melodic approaches.


Le Grand Macabre was premiered in Stockholm in April of 1978 and has since received more than thirty productions - most unusual for an operatic work of the last several decades. In preparation for a 1997 production at the Salzburg Festival Ligeti made substantial revisions to the opera in 1996, tightening the structure by means of cuts in scenes 2 and 4, setting some of the originally spoken passages to music and removing others altogether.  He was unhappy with Peter Sellars’ production because he made specific (the setting of the end of the world) that which the composer wished to remain ambiguous.



What a peculiar and extraordinary work is this, and not one easily described.  A co-production of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opera di Roma and the English National Opera, there may a great many hands behind the scenes, but what we see, for all its oddities, has a riveting coherence about it that gets its inspiration from Bruegel and Bosch and the sculptures of Ron Mueck. The production is a relentlessly inventive essay in excess in all its forms.  The eye-popping centerpiece is a large model of a person - a “body house” as it is referred to by its creators, who name it “Claudia” and whom they see as the protagonist of the opera - that morphs into various aspects of personhood, aided seamlessly by 3D video projection.  At one time it is a skeleton; at another, a cocktail bar.


The costumes are outrageous, color coded for each character.  Two characters are fully encased in BodyWorks latex muscle suits; two others wear nude body suits – one appetizing, the other, who chases after her husband with a stringless tennis racquet, decadent and revolting.  There’s a hirsute man in a pink ladies’ foundation garment; another with a fake protruding belly, dressed like a slob, which is saying something in this company; the white and black ministers have latex face makeup and could be played by anyone, though more striking are their colorful costumes.  The whole aspect feels like a cross between Waiting for Godot and Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Actors clamber across and into the model. Venus descends from the space above the stage and takes her leave into the galaxy beyond.  Lighting is dramatic, often isolating this or that piece of action on the stage.




La fura dels Baus’ staging of Le Grand Macabre is an excellent example of the merging of production and performance.  So bizarre and grotesque are the sets and costumes that it takes some while to get used to the fact that there is singing going on here, not least by an invisible choir.  Without a doubt, the singers here have to be good actors as well, and be willing to be exposed and humiliated.  Each character has their own style: Some like the lover twins, Armando and Amanda, are rather lyrical, others, much less so.  Just about every character is highly sexualized, including the huge model in the center of the stage. Sex acts are commonplace, though it took a little while for me to be certain that no one is actually nude.  The singing is, in all cases, suitable. What and how they are singing, however, is purely a matter of taste. It may take more than a few minutes to get used to it. Do not stifle sudden urges to giggle.  There is some pretty funny material here.  Conductor Michael Boder leads the Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in a suitable temper, never dropping the pulse or level of excitement for a moment.




Arthaus Musik, along with C Major and related German companies, have for some years enjoyed small file size, low bit rate, high compression operas on Blu-ray – most famously, Wagner’ highly praised RING set – as here, also staged by the creative team known as “La fura dels Baus.”  In the present case, Arthaus gets surprisingly good results with a two-hour opera crammed into a mere 16.66 GB.  That’s four times the resolution of DVD, remember, whose space is less than 10 GB.  They waste another 1.2 GB on promos for other Arthaus releases and, even accounting for the space devoted to relevant bonus features, they still leave 4-5 GB of a single-layered BD25 completely empty.



Clearly, the mastering engineers take full advantage of the AVC codec that permits dropping the bit rate when the image changes little and especially when there are large areas of black.  The bit rate stays generally in the 12~18 Mbps range, rarely peaking over 20, and, when things are black enough allowing dips close to 10, the upper limit for DVD.  So what, you may well ask?  The image is sharp, colors are brilliant, noise is kept at bay, transfer artifacts are vanishingly low.  Most viewers would be satisfied.  Why am I not, besides the fact that it grates my aesthetic sensibilities to waste space and to charge what they do when they could have eaten an extra dollar’s profit to ensure the best possible transfer with a BD50 and a corresponding doubling of the bit rate.



If you were to come fresh from any number of Opus Arte Blu-ray operas, regardless of style, you would see the difference at once.  Opus Arte images are denser have more color contrast and texture.  That’s what’s missing here: Peter van Praet’s high contrast lighting places demands on high-def video that needs all the help it can get from the transfer so as not to wash out the highs and block detail in the dark areas.  Texture, too, is glossed over.  There is little variation in skin tone or fabrics.  There is a vague deadness to the image, not intended by La Fura dels Baus.




By contrast, the audio for Le Grand Macabre is demonstration quality.  Arthaus provides the usual dual uncompressed options.  The surround is good, but the stereo is significantly better: it has more focus, better dynamic scale and more weight.  In short, there is more there, there – more reach out and touch it sound.  Voices never screech, despite the vocal pyrotechnics often demanded by the composer.  The orchestra, especially the percussion, is vivid, striking and true.  Only the deepest bass is given short shrift – and, that only a little.




In addition to the two extra features on the disc, Arthaus Musik supplies a booklet with a detailed breakdown of its 40 chapters and an informative three-page essay by Dr. Mike Searby (Kingston University, London).  On the disc we find an outstanding making-of piece - Fear to Death - that focuses primarily on the production in every detail, which is an opera in itself (in Spanish with English subtitles).  In the only other bonus feature, conductor Michael Boder (in German with Engllish subtitles) takes us on a six-minute tour of the music of Le Grand Macabre and its relevance to our everyday world, musical and otherwise.  Both of these features are worth your time and will help makes some sense out of the contrived nonsense that we see and hear.  I recommend watching both of these and a read of Dr. Searby’s essay before you tackle the opera.  By the way, though the opera is sung in English, you will almost certainly still need to engage the subtitles.




György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre will likely have the distinction of being the most bizarre opera you will have ever seen – and no better way to see it, I imagine, than on high-definition large screen projection in the safety of your own home.  Everything about this release, save only my reservations about the image quality, is inventive, fascinating, often very funny, and of highest quality.  There’s little point in trying to make sense out of it, though we can’t help ourselves, really.  That dilemma is part of the point, no doubt.  Recommended, especially if you like circuses. Weird and wonderful,  though hardly to everyone’s taste.

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

October 21, 2012

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