Wednesday 23 September 2009

Live merrily in cheerfulness

Le Grand Macabre, ENO, London Coliseum

If the overture sounds like a raucous discord of car horns, that’s because it’s scored for car horns. Over it, the film projected onto the front cloth could be any low-budget television documentary about some slob killing herself with fags and junk food in front of the television. As she chokes on her burger and lurches forward to crawl across the floor, the cloth rises, and the woman, with pendulous breasts and mouth open in horrified surprise, is there in three dimensions, filling the opera house stage. Her vast body is the set for the rest of the opera.

First to arrive, belly poking out from his grubby bodywarmer and road-digger’s trousers, is Piet the Pot. We’ve moved on from ‘When Junk Food Kills’ to ‘Binge-drink Breughelland’. And as Piet sings his complaint that he’s hallucinating ‘horrible music’ you might wonder whether they are taking the piss.

Yes, they are. And so is Ligeti, and so was Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote the 1934 play Ligeti’s and Michael Meschke’s libretto is based on. There’s a strong twist of satire, of Dada and the absurd, of seventies subversion and 21st –century parody, that runs through everything from the music to the performances. But, like all good parody, it also gives you a satisfying hit of the real thing. Gyorgy Ligeti can do comedy music, but he also gives us lyrical, dramatic and downright disturbing.

Piet the Pot spies drunkenly on the lovers who twine together, apparently as skinless as Gunther von Hagen’s Bodyworlds corpses, but he’s surprised by Nekrotzar, who announces himself as Death, come to end the world at midnight. And he is truly frightening, as his scythe decapitates a succession of terrified faces. But still, there is a sense of the absurd, of Don Quixote or Ubu Roi, about this Death who press-gangs Piet into taking him into town. In a moment the tone changes from a virtuoso aria on the terror of mortality to Piet’s prosaic ‘Oh God, now we’re all fucked’.

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

At first, it seems this could be a series of absurd scenes with no thread or story, as the second scene moves to a curious laboratory inhabited by trembling chickens, a lascivious dominatrix and her humiliated astronomer husband. Grotesque and funny, but still the fear of the ageing and mortal flesh runs through their desperate entanglements. And sure enough, Nekrotzar does arrive with Piet, and the gathering doom of the world does begin to gain momentum.

This production was conceived, directed and designed by Catalan ensemble, La Fura dels Baus, first known for the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics. But they bring much more to this opera than bold spectacle and enormous structures. The performances are astonishingly physical, the singers moving boldly across the giant body, making real contact with each other and performing both comedy and sensuality with confidence. Susanna Andersson, who sings both Venus and Gepopo, chief of the secret police, is outstanding in combining acrobatic movement, masterful comic timing and two coloratura soprano roles.

Nor does the overarching concept, that fear of death takes place in the human body from eyes to intestines, run completely counter to the piece. Strongly influenced by Brueghel and Bosch, the story of Death bringing terror to the world from drunkards to politicians and princes is deeply rooted in the medieval, visceral sense of life: vital, pulsing, but reduced in a moment to decay and decomposition. And it’s a view of the world that resonates deeply today, the terror that the world might come to an end at any moment, that Death will snatch any of us, or all of us, without mercy. That, in some way, that’s the preordained goal we’re all hurtling towards.

There are other dimensions. Prince Go-Go and his clownish politicians, here introduced literally as clowns, are both strutting and spineless, squabbling between themselves while ignoring the entreaties of the terrified chorus. But all this is there in the score, where the two Ministers compete to sing the alphabet in swear words. The paranoid secret police rush about to no effect. As Nekrotzar takes the pulpit to sing a chilling announcement of the end of the world, it seems to have already fallen apart at his approach.

But the people of Breughelland seem, after all, to have a more balanced view. One minute Piet the Pot and his astronomer friend are drinking to their own imminent demise, apparently resigned like passive idiots to their own extinction. The next, they’ve got Death himself so drunk he seems incapable of carrying out the promised end of the world - echoing so many folk tales in which Death or the Devil is outwitted by the ‘stupid’ anti-hero.

As the fear and confusion recede and Nekrotzar retreats, the lovers reappear. If that was the end of the word, they missed it, too engrossed in each other to notice anything else: ‘for us, too, the world ceased to be. And yet, how ecstatic were we!’ Their duets, as before, are beautifully sweet, melodic; two female voices in counterpoint and without irony. Like a Shakespeare comedy they end with a rhyming moral, ‘Fear not to die, good people all! No one knows when his hour will fall. And when it comes, then let it be…. Farewell till then, live merrily in cheerfulness’.

But just in case you’d started taking it all too seriously, over the front cloth the giant lady is back, her face straining in agony - or ecstasy? … she reaches the point she was straining for – and pulls the chain.

25 September, 1, 3, 9 October 2009


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