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!