Sometimes the end of the world is not the end of the world. Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1978 opera Le Grand Macabre is set on the eve of the end of the world—or at least the end of the fictional dukedom of Breughelland. The opera’s New York premiere last Thursday was hailed as the first “fully staged” production by the New York Philharmonic. The notion that using a mix of video projections and costumes to elevate a concert performance to a fully staged opera seemed to put a scare in the Philharmonic’s neighbors—multiple Metropolitan and City Opera officers were seen in the audience on Thursday’s opening night, no doubt wondering if the NY Phil’s opera performance would be like the comet in Breughelland that threatens extinction to traditional order.
As inventive and novel as the NY Phil’s Grand Macabre was, it was neither “fully staged” (as heavily advertised) nor did it offer any revolutionary forms of opera production. It was an elaborate mix of concert performance (with the orchestra on stage, instead of in a pit) with singers—with their own separate conductor!—performing in front of the band, interacting with two mini-film studios stage right, and roaming the aisles of Avery Fisher Hall.
Was it new? Indeed. Was it opera? Sort of… but then Ligeti’s Grand Macabre is such an odd piece you could stage it in a supermarket (or an RV park) and it would probably work as well. It’s a wild, Dadaist piece that doesn’t really have a true plot or narrative. There are characters (whom artists like Eric Owens and Melissa Parks played with great theatricality) but again, they could be wearing anything (or nothing, as Venus or others on stage appeared) and no one would really complain.
As spectacle, this production was entirely successful. Employing top-notch singers, one of the world’s great orchestras, and presided over by the Phil’s music director, Alan Gilbert, this was as musically strong a production of Ligeti’s opera as I’ve experienced. (Also, the amusing Monty-Python-esque visuals of FX team “Giants Are Small,” were well integrated by director Doug Fitch.) However, opera is an immersive art form, one that should take you someplace new. True “fully-staged” productions do this with stagecraft; concert performances of operas also have this ability as they let your imagination do the work. This Grand Macabre fell somewhere between, and the result was that I never felt completely swept away by Ligeti’s music even as I was caught up in the unique spectacle unfolding onstage.
Another recent mix of the operatic and symphonic in New York was seeing Alban Berg’s Lulu performed in the concert hall and on stage, both in the same week. Usually with the spiky, dissonant score of Lulu, the safer bet would be an orchestral performance of Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” which is and condensed version of the sprawling stage work. Indeed, Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most and his Cleveland Orchestra delivered a smooth, subtle and affecting account of the 30-minute excerpt at Carnegie Hall on May 21st, complete with Erin Morley singing the third movement (“Lulu’s Song”) with clarity and grace.
But this refined hearing of the score was trumped by the Metropolitan Opera’s truly “fully-staged” production of Lulu seen earlier that week. The Met’s Lulu was performed without James Levine conducting (long an advocate of Berg’s opera, Levine led the Met’s first performance of the opera back in 1977) but this did not hamper the experience at all. Fabio Luisi’s work at the podium left nothing to be desired aurally. Berg’s music sounded cool, jazzy, decadent, and most of all: dramatic. Luisi was assisted by John Dexter’s reliable staging and a first-rate cast: James Morris, Gary Lehman, Graham Clark, plus an almost unrecognizable Anne Sofie von Otter, who all excelled in their roles—both as actors and singers. But it was Marlis Petersen who truly made the performance. Her Lulu was gorgeously sung and acted with natural, effervescent precision. Berg’s Lulu is not to everyone’s ears, but if more performances of the 4-hour opera sounded like it did on May 15th, that could finally change.
Image: Le Grand Macabre. Photo courtesy NY Phil.