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The Philharmonic's Challenge: Merely the End of the World
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 28 May 2010

Encouraging evidence that Alan Gilbert's bold artistic vision for the New York Philharmonic has been embraced by the public could be seen in two words on a poster outside Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night: "SOLD OUT."

What had sold out were three performances of Gyorgy Ligeti's musically audacious opera "Le Grand Macabre," a bleakly satirical tale set in an "anytime" century, first performed in Stockholm in 1978. In the piece a spectral, booming figure who proclaims himself Death comes to the decadent, carefree principality of Breughelland and announces his intention to destroy the world at the stroke of midnight. Presenting a staged production of this challenging modernist work was Mr. Gilbert's most ambitious project for his first season as the Philharmonic's music director.

Here, courtesy of the Philharmonic, was the New York premiere of a piece that by rights the Metropolitan Opera should have produced long ago. (The only previous American staged production was at the San Francisco Opera in 2004.) Tackling "Le Grand Macabre" is one way that Mr. Gilbert is taking the Philharmonic into the 21st century. The risk was that audiences might not follow him.

But Thursday night's presentation was an exhilarating success, offering an eager and excellent cast, a brilliant and assured performance of Ligeti's daunting score and a disarming production, designed and directed by Doug Fitch, that makes ingenious use of playful video images. The audience, with noticeable contingents of young people, laughed right through and seemed enthralled.

Ligeti, who died at 83 in 2006, was not a natural for musical theater. When he came upon a play by Michel de Ghelderode about the end of the world, presented both as calamity and farce, he found a subject that inspired him to fashion his own kind of opera. He wrote the libretto with Michael Meschke.

The original version of "Le Grand Macabre," with long spans of spoken dialogue, came across almost as operatic cabaret. Nearly 20 years later, Ligeti revised the score, removing chunks of dialogue, turning some speaking roles into sung ones and lending the overall opera more musical continuity, without losing the riotousness, the spirit of macabre musical theater. That version, introduced at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, was performed here.

The opera opens with a raspy prelude for 12 honking car horns, all precisely pitched. The first character we meet is Piet the Pot, the land's official wine taster, here the robust tenor Mark Schowalter in a poignantly comic performance. Typically tipsy, Piet blesses Breughelland as a place where no one knows a care.

The scene is supposed to take place near the remains of a decayed graveyard. Mr. Fitch's production employs a stage extension in front of the orchestra but achieves most of its effects through videos. Using two stands, rather like puppet booths, in full view of the audience, stagehands make close-up videos of mini-sets, flats and props, which are then projected onto a screen in the shape of a sunburst that hovers over the orchestra. Sometimes singers pop into the booths for close-ups. So when Nekrotzar, the persona of Death, emerges as if from the underworld, we first see the comically menacing face of this character, played by the formidable bass-baritone Eric Owens, as a ghoulish video image.

Though the videos are wildly imaginative, a great deal of the action is simply staged on the extended platform, with the singers in surreal sci-fi costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Early in the first scene, for example, we meet the soprano Jennifer Black as Amanda, and the mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Amanda's devoted male lover, Amando. They wear primitive grass skirts and bodysuits that make them appear naked from the waist up, showing off Amanda's buxom breasts and Amando's muscled chest. Ligeti gives them melismatic intertwining melodies against the astringent harmonies of the orchestra, which this pair sang beautifully.

The original libretto was in German, but Ligeti wanted the text to be translated into the language of the audience hearing it. (The premiere was sung in Swedish.) For this performance in English, the decision was made not to use supertitles, and it was the right choice. During intricate musical stretches, some of the words do not come through clearly. But the revised score is still thick with spoken and half-sung lines. So it would have been distracting to see the texts projected.

The charismatic bass Wilbur Pauley, as the henpecked court astrologer Astradamors, and the lush-voiced mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks, as his brutishly domineering wife, Mescalina, were wonderful. The soprano Kiera Duffy, as an unearthly tall Venus, was suffering from a cold and could not sing. Her understudy, Audrey Elizabeth Luna, sang the role from the side as Ms. Duffy acted in costume. Somehow it made this mystical moment in Ligeti's score, where the strings play haunting Neo-Baroque passages, all the more magical.

The young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought a clear, penetrating voice and dramatic flair to the role of the gluttonous, cowardly Prince Go-Go, looking like a butterball, with his head protruding from his scaly globe of a costume. He is served by two quarrelsome advisers, the White Minister (the appealing tenor Peter Tantsits) and the Black Minster (the virile bass Joshua Bloom), who engage in some nimble bits of physical comedy.

The soprano Barbara Hannigan deftly dispatched the coloratura leaps and runs of the punishing part of Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, while bringing demonic zaniness to her portrayal. Choral elements were richly sung by the New York Choral Artists, performing sometimes from the stage, sometimes from the balconies.

The hero of this production, of the whole endeavor, is Mr. Gilbert, who conducted the score with insight, character and command. The Philharmonic players seemed inspired as they executed this complex music with skill and conviction. Mr. Gilbert brought out Ligeti's wildness. Yet moment after moment was ravishing, like the fractured, hazy, strangely elusive scene when Piet, Astradamors and Nekrotzar drink themselves into a stupor, which causes Nekrotzar to bungle his chance to destroy the world.

Actually, he turns out to be another impotent imposter, right at home in Breughelland. The opera ends with a passacaglia for vocal ensemble and orchestra, as the citizens, not sure whether they are alive or dead, agree that the best course is to have no fear, let come what may, and enjoy yourself.

Not just opera, but challenging contemporary opera in an inventive and effective production, has come to the Philharmonic, thanks to Mr. Gilbert and his colleague Mr. Fitch. This was an instant Philharmonic milestone.
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