It’s A Grand Macabre

Wednesday 7 October 2009

How are you supposed to appreciate a work of art that is intended to fail? The possibilities boil down to “Congratulations, it sucks!” or “Too bad it’s good.” György Ligeti’s only opera Le Grand Macabre premiered in 1978, a little late for the 60s era of irreverent deconstruction. Appropriately, he tried to outwit the Zeitgeist by writing an “anti-anti-opera”.

La Fura dels Baus‘ production of Le Grand Macabre is now being staged in London, where it has played upon, and been played by, the modern-day Zeitgeist. Self-consciously provocative, this production’s central conceit is a coup de théâtre that the action takes place on, around, and especially inside a naked, corpulent woman suspended apparenty in extremis. During the first scenes the audience gently chuckled, even more self-consciously, in an attempt to show the Catalans that these English punters were down with all the sexual innuendo and in-jokes. By and large, the critics were at pains to demonstrate that the show failed to shock them and that the whole affair felt a bit dated, really.

By half-time I was starting to feel that the opera was a fine museum piece, at odds with itself over whether to provoke or deflate its own pretensions. The second half won me over. Ligeti’s score is incredibly detailed – it functions more as a chorus commenting on the characters’ behaviour than as a backdrop to their singing – and the latter half contains some of his most unusual, affecting music. I’ve read some reviews that thought the spectacular set dominated procedings. Well, it did, but the singers were a match for it. Besides attacking their parts with lustily grotesque abandon, they gave remarkably active, physical performances. Depsite Ligeti’s qualms about expecting his performers to be actors and singers, one of the greatest pleasures in this production was how seamlessly the singing and the stage acrobatics blended together.

What really makes the opera succeed is how it fails to fail. For Ligeti, failure is not to be denounced but accepted, even embraced. Having survived two of Europe’s most ruthless attempts to impose an all-encompassing system upon society, admissions of fallibility must come as something of a relief. Who can be disappointed by the opera’s ending, that Death’s “sacred mission” ends in failure? The autocratic prince and his secret police are rendered humourous and charming by their ineffectualness. The chief of police’s fevered babbling becomes a coloratura tour de force; the drunkards’ carousing ends in ringing harmonies. Dross is transformed to gold, and we end up feeling affection for these caricatures.

Ligeti talked about “overcoming fear with alienation“. In a world where we are harried to be more and more fearful about less and less, Ligeti’s comedy has found new ways to prod at our nicely settled discomfort.