Thursday, October 15, 2009



The last thing we see in this new production of Ligeti’s opera by English National Opera in the London Coliseum, first night September 17, is a hand pulling a lavatory chain. If this suggests that the whole evening has been a load of crap, so be it. This is not so much the theatre of the absurd as the opera of the cloacal.

In Alan Bennett’s play the Schoolmaster observes: When humour has to descend into the lavatory, the writing is on the wall. The writing in the programme book is full of intellectual flim-flam but Ligeti’s theatre piece, premiere 1978 in Stockholm, intends to shock, to stick its finger in your eye. In the following thirty-one years it has had twenty-five different productions in Europe and America staged by thirty-three opera companies. Of modernish operas, only Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes seem to be the ones to have enjoyed such a spate of productions. And, curiously enough, all three of these operas have an orchestral passacaglia at the heart of their scores.

So, although I might prefer, as it were, to pull the chain on Ligeti I must describe a few details. This new production is based on one by the Catalan collective La Fura Dels Baus and has already been seen at La Monnaie, Brussels and the Teatro dell’ Opera in Rome. After six performances in London it will be seen in Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceu and later at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.

The text is partly by the composer himself, after Michel Ghelderode’s play La Balade du Grand Macabre. The décor mainly consists of a 20 feet high fibre-glass figure of a naked woman (with a face somewhat resembling the cricketer Mike Atherton). This monster’s eyes light up, various parts of its body open up and are detachable (foot, backside, nipples) it revolves frequently. Members of the cast go in and out of her (she is called Claudia) and sometimes climb and walk around her – Alfons Flores designed her. The whole production is fascinating, even awe-inspiring, and a miracle of ingenuity. Décor and action hark back to the paintings by Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights) and Breughel (The Triumph of Death). Those medieval painters invented surrealism and all kinds of obscenity. But seen moving on a stage they can still produce a frisson of shock, a giggle and eventually, a yawn.

Scene three, for example, begins with Claudia’s bum (excuse me ... and there is worse to come) facing us and in a moment a face appears in the crack of it. It opens up and we see Claudia’s tripes which soon tumble out. No holds are barred and many of them are ingenious. It often appears that the theatrical avant-garde is to be seen in our age in the opera rather than the play house. Musicals sometimes show advanced stagings but they don’t set out to shock quite like Grand Macabre.

But, hey, this is supposed to be an opera! What of the music? Well, there isn’t much. And it doesn’t compare with many other works by Ligeti. The score is not as offensive as the action. There are melodic fragments occasionally, lots of bangs from the percussion, squeaks from the woodwind and so on. The vocal writing does not beguile. The only real music comes late in the proceedings, the afore-mentioned passacaglia, the opening of the fourth and last scene, and towards the end, the orchestra has some interesting material. The work seems to have come to a close (consumetum est is sung) but then there is another fifteen or more minutes which do not add anything dramatically or musically. There are in the score various allusions and parodies but unless you know where they come, you might miss them.

This show contains no musical catharsis, does not grip your deeper emotions, as Grimes or Lady Macbeth; it comes over as a rather childish, unsophisticated, out-of-date exercise in let-it-all-hang-out, a vastly expensive waste of time for those in front of and behind the curtain.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (that tenor who specializes in the bizarre) plays Piet the Pot, Susan Bickley is Messalina, and Susanna Andersson is Venus doubling as Gepopo, Chief of Police. To all of them, my thanks …. and condolences. Baldur Brönimann steers chorus and orchestra efficiently.

I met Ligeti several times and found him charming, highly intelligent, warm, funny and serious. Not a sign of the emotional chips that might have been expected on his shoulder – he suffered under fascism and Stalin, his family all killed. He was also uninhibited; it wasn’t safe for a woman to be alone with him.

What would he have composed if he lived longer? A song-cycle Pee, pot, belly, ho, bum, drawers, a cantata Tourette’s Syndrome or the opera Sodom and Gomorrah? Or perhaps another fine Violin Concerto, more masterly Atmosphères, more interesting piano pieces or further witty Aventures?

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