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


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