György Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre, dir. by Peter Sellars, Berlin Philharmonic, cond. by Simon Rattle, 18 February 2017 [review]


Finally, Peter Sellars’ Le Grand Macabre has become available to watch online! As such, I am able to supply some critical engagement, all of which I’ve been mulling over for a week or so and have half forgotten. Nonetheless, in this post I shall attempt some ‘insightful’ and ‘interesting’ observations, many of which will be opinion based and thus of questionable value, save clogging up the search results of future Googlers.


As other reviewers have written, musically this performance is solid both vocally and orchestrally, with the two working together without issue. My only real disagreement was with the upper reaches of Piet’s (Peter Hoare) vocal lines being sung falsetto; for me, to really capture the despair and, well, drunkenness of the character these passages do much better in a strained chest voice. Aside from this small quibble, a great performance!


But, this is probably what you would expect given a group of world leading musicians. With a palette of such calibre, Peter Sellars’ could really go to town on the staging and make this a performance to be watched intently and not just listened to! Only, he didn’t. Beyond a few drums of nuclear waste, some projections of nuclear disasters, and clever use of webcam to comically intensify the expressions of certain characters, Sellars’ semi staging simply lacked the energy to convey the farce, carnival, and pandemonium written into the opera. Costumes were drab and movement limited, including Melcalina and Astradamors (Heidi Melton and Frode Olsen) performing much of their scene simply sitting at a desk.


Further, I believe the theme of nuclear war to be a little too banal. Of course, living in Cold War Europe, Ligeti was only too aware of impending nuclear peril, but to translate this fear directly seems simplistic. Indeed, Ligeti has remarked that his music is not a direct programme, but an implied message.[1] Where in nuclear desolation is there room for ‘fantastic seagulls’, carnal and deviant pleasure, drunken stumbling, and demoniacal can-cans? Again, this affects the energy of the piece: Gepopo (Audrey Luna) lying in bed suffering with radiation sickness hardly matches the acrobatic ferocity of the aria.


Overall I think Sellars missed the mark. Admittedly, with a semi staging, I don’t think it would be possible to capture the full energy of the piece, but I maintain more could have been done. It’s been very hard to resist a comparison between this performance and Alex Ollé’s 2012 production, but suffice to say that I always worried that Sellar’s staging would be flat in comparison, and it was.


[1] Várnai, Péter, ‘György Ligeti talking to Péter Várnai’ in Ligeti in Conversation, trans. by Gabor Schabert (London: Ernst Eulenburg, 1983) p. 81


Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leeds University Union Opera Society, Riley Smith Hall, 2 February 2017 (review)

A receptive audience, merry from a few drinks beforehand, warmly greeted LUU Opera Society on the second night of their much anticipated production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The stakes were high: a challenging opera for the very best seasoned professionals is surely too great a feat for a bunch of students! Not so. The talented group demonstrated that they had not been intimidated by the task and set out to give the audience an evening of glitz, glamour, humour, and most importantly fantastic music.


Mozart’s great opera tells the tale of Don Giovanni (Nicholas Porter) a lecherous Casanova and his man servant Leporello (Jonny Hill) as they negotiate toe-curlingly awkward social situations in the attempt to bed yet more women. It must be acknowledged that this was no purist production; indeed, the modern English translation and setting within a 1920s mansion ensured that the opera took on an entertaining and accessible form.


The leading men Porter and Hill were convincing from the start: Porter settling into a parading swagger whilst Hill, in no way a secondary role, ensuring the humour was carried throughout the production. During the dramatic murder scene Emily Higgins (Lady Anna), swearing vengeance, showed her vocal prowess tackling some tricky passages high in the vocal range, only to surpass these later in the show with intricate melisma. No less impressive was Morgana Warren-Jones who played a thoroughly hacked off Elvira providing tangible scorn through a precise and powerful performance. Of course this was all enabled by the orchestra who, under the baton of Tim Gillies, created a solid emotional canvas on which the singers then embellished.


The performance was only marred by conditions out of the control of Opera Society. Chief among these was the audience being sat on the flat, level with the orchestra, due to limitations of the tiered seating. This undesirable positioning forced the singers on stage to compete with the sound of the orchestra, instead of simply projecting over the top. Gillies held the orchestra’s pianissimo as low as possible to remedy this and overall the singers were audible.


A modern adaptation certainly helped LUU Opera Society bring Don Giovanni to life for a contemporary audience, but it was the talent of the performers on stage and off which sealed the deal. Thoroughly entertaining and musical.

A pre-review of sorts

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (1977)

Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, Berlin Philharmonic

February 22nd 2017


Initially, the prospect of my favourite opera of all time and current object of scrutiny being performed by such a fantastic orchestra had me very excited, but my enthusiasm has already waned substantially. This particular production has already received its premiere, albeit with the London Symphony Orchestra instead of the BP, and the reviews are a bit confusing. Across the board, the music from both the orchestra and the vocalists is said to have been fantastic, however, Peter Sellar’s staging has been criticised and it is this that has me worried. Sellar’s interpretation involved:

[a] stage strewn with drums of radioactive waste, characters wearing white coats or decontamination suits and backed by video footage of nuclear power stations and mushroom clouds, demonstrations against Trident and survivors sifting through the devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Andrew Clements, ‘Le Grand Macabre review – Sellars brings muddle but Rattle, beauty’, Guardian, 16 Jan 2017


For me, the reading of the story as a direct allegory to nuclear warfare is far too simplistic and removes much of the nuance. The plot functions around the unresolved question of whether Nekrtotzar is genuinely death incarnate, or if he is a fraud. This is supported by another important ambiguity in Act 3 which features Piet, Astradamors, and Prince Gogo questioning whether they are really dead now, as they cannot tell the difference. To frame these questions within the context of nuclear disaster would be to resolve the plot and very much alter the tone of the opera; no longer would the work float in Absurdity, but be more akin to a traditional apocalyptic narrative.


As well as this, Ligeti’s plot explores themes of love, deviant sex, and gluttony which is hard to imagine set in an atomic wasteland. Ligeti explores very human, earthy themes as he attempts a to draw a discourse on existence, which sits nicely against a general and diffuse sense of doom. To set those human ideas against a specific, technological, scientific death very much destroys the tone Ligeti was attempting, I think.


Having said this, I’m yet to watch the production. I will attempt to watch in an unbiased way as is only fair, but I expect to be back here once I’ve seen it feeling much the same as I do now.

Surprise me, Sellars!




Edit: formatting

A confused beginning…

In this blog I’ll be engaging with “music” in a very broad sense; much of my research involves social, political, and economic ideas, and so these will be a running theme to some extent. Despite my intense fear of being made to look a fool on the internet, I will be leaving the comments section active, and so any feedback or discussion is welcomed there. I’m not entirely certain what this blog will become in the end or who I’ll reach, but I guess that’s part of the fun.

I’ve started this blog with a few functions in mind:

  • to get me into the habit of writing regularly
  • as a place to articulate general academic musings
  • to (hopefully) engage with an audience outside of the four people I speak to regularly
  • as an enjoyable activity that I don’t have to feel too guilty about

What I’ll try to do:

  • loosely discuss my research interests
  • post regularly – ideally every few weeks
  • comment on talks/papers/performances/issues

What I’ll try not to do:

  • post pictures of my cat
  • neglect the blog
  • ramble