Sunday, 11 October 2009

Le grand macabre, English National Opera, 9 October 2009

(sung in English)

Coliseum

Venus/Gepopo – Susanna Andersson
Mescalina – Susan Bickley
Prince Go-Go – Andrew Watts
Piet the Pot – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Nekrotzar – Pavlo Hunka
Astradamors – Frode Olsene
White Minister – Daniel Norman
Black Minister – Simon Butteriss
Amanda – Rebecca Bottone
Amando – Frances Bourne

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco (directors)
Alfons Flores (set designer)
Franc Aleu (video)
Lluc Castells (costumes)
Peter van Praet (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Baldur Brönnimann (conductor)

It is curious when one thinks how inventive a composer Ligeti is, that the greatest impact from ENO’s new production of Le grand macabre is theatrical rather than musical. Sometimes such things happen on account of theatrical overload – one wants to tell the director to calm down a bit, as in, for example, Phillip Stölzl’s Salzburg production of Benvenuto Cellini – but here, I think it was much as it should be. La Fura dels Baus’s production is quite magnificent, yet on occasion it does serve to highlight a certain, surprising lack in Ligeti’s musical invention. This seemed to me rather more the case after the interval. Banality is clearly the point in certain cases; calls from the chorus – very well done, incidentally – threaten to turn into something akin to minimalism. And there are some wonderful musical passages too, not least the passacaglia. However, much as I might wish to do so, I cannot account this one of the composer’s strongest works. Parts are genuinely funny, and were certainly made so by the production, but the slapstick is no competitor to Aventures or Nouvelles Aventures.

A giant woman’s body that almost fills the stage is presaged on video by an appropriate combination of humour and disgust at consumerism and tabloid journalism. As the woman, ‘inspired’ by Claudia, a friend of the Catalan theatrical collective, revolves, characters emerge from and retreat into various of her orifices. It is surreal, fun, and not without a hint of anger, though never does it seem didactic. The direction of the singers is first rate and the sheer cheapness of how late capitalist society would doubtless ‘celebrate’ the apocalypse shines through, without being rammed down one’s throat.

Likewise, the musical performances are strong, though the abiding impression, quite rightly, is of contribution to a company achievement rather than a moment for stardom. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Pavlo Hunka portrayed their central characters, Piet the Pot and Nekrotzar, with dramatic intelligence. Susan Bickley was predictably but no less laudably fine as the apparently intimidating but actually risible Mescalina. If Amanda and Amando remain, for me at least, more irritating than anything else, that is not the fault of Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne, who negotiated their musical lines with aplomb, even if their diction left a little to be desired. There was plenty of camp to be relished in Andrew Watts’s Prince Go-Go and his two ministers, played by Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss. However, if there was a musical star to the evening, it was the orchestra, which has clearly internalised Ligeti’s considerable demands, so as to be able to play a full theatrical part in the proceedings. The orchestral security and expression owed much to Baldur Brönnimann’s command of the score; this was as sure a guide as one could have hoped for.

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