Ligeti’s Light-Hearted Opera about the End of the World

ligeti opera grand macabreLaughing in the Face of Death -

The New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert, in his first years as its Music Director, gambled and won on this other-worldly, wild opera, in a semi-staged production which sold out all 3 performances.

György Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre" had its premiere in Sweden in 1978 and was substantially revised in 1996. It is a comic farrago about the end of the world: Nekrotzar (Death) arrives in Breughelland (in a graveyard, of course) to announce its imminent demise to a variety of characters who go about their business, unimpressed.

It's a wildly complex score, with constant meter and tempo changes, and a lot of noisy brass and percussion (including a big alarm clock and a steamship whistle). It features two preludes for car horns and one for doorbells. Singers speak as well as sing, and their vocal lines often verge toward the extremes of their ranges. Moments of high drama (like the chorus wailing about its imminent doom) are swiftly punctured by low comedy (Astradamors rejoicing that his wife is dead). Nothing is allowed to get too serious.

The singers, in elaborate Hieronymous Bosch-inspired costumes by Catherine Zuber, moved much more than is usual in semistaged opera, while in a complicated puppet-theater setup on stage left, miniature elements—figures, drawings and models—were manipulated and captured by video cameras in real time, and these "animations" were projected on a screen above the orchestra. Images ranged from the apocalyptic (tiny figures squashed under a giant foot) to the comically apocalyptic (an erupting volcano with cake-sparkler fire).

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