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Seen and Heard International: Le Grand Macabre
Bruce Hodges | MusicWeb International | 29 May 2010

Before spending a few minutes praising conductor Alan Gilbert, who first envisioned presenting Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre with the New York Philharmonic, I have to single out the brilliant designer, Doug Fitch, and his colleagues at Giants Are Small. I am highly skeptical of visual elements in classical performances, most of which fall far short of the mark, either on their own or combined with music. Sometimes I wonder how many people today require visuals to feel connected with music (e.g., MTV-style), since in the wrong hands, music and art can still remain an awkward alliance. But here, Fitch transformed Avery Fisher Hall into a canvas for his often astonishing ideas, effortlessly transformed into dazzling images that gave weight and depth to Ligeti's carnival of an opera.

The opera's plot takes place in Breughelland, where Nekrotzar, a self-proclaimed oracle of Death, has decreed that a comet is coming to wipe out the citizenry at midnight. When later this omen has not quite come to pass, by that time the people have become so drunk that they believe it actually has happened—that they have already been transported into heaven. (If this sounds slightly wacky already, even Maestro Gilbert, in his program notes, encouraged the audience to read the libretto afterward, at home.)

The locus of this creativity was a large Edward Gorey-esque oval screen, floating above the orchestra. With incredibly intricate timing, dozens of tiny sets were systematically placed in front of cameras, capturing crowds of clay figures, disorienting planetary landscapes, and animated line drawings of say, a toothy maw, as if from a giant worm. One scene uses a tiny model of the hall, complete with lights duplicating the 1970s-style bulbs zigzagging under the balconies. As the miniature lights flashed, the actual hall lights flickered simultaneously, creating a weird feeling that the entire space is part of some infinite rabbit hole, down which everyone onstage—not to mention the audience—might vanish. For the citizens of Breughelland, a piece of paper with dozens of tiny smiley faces suddenly flashed onscreen, animated to "sing" in formation thanks to a second piece of paper behind it, making their mouths move—genius in simplicity. I almost wanted to change seats to one in the box overlooking Fitch's crew, at stage right, which seemed analogous to a team of 21st-century Foley artists.

Musically, Ligeti uses a relatively small orchestra with reduced strings, albeit with an army of percussionists deploying novelties like a cuckoo clock and a music box. The Philharmonic's musicians seemed inspired, working overtime to help create Ligeti's fanciful, bizarre landscape, in which hard edges brush up against (say) a minuet. Many listeners responded eagerly to the two preludes which open the acts—the first for car horns, the second for doorbells—and to the passacaglia which appears near the end.

The roles were about as marvelously cast as anyone could wish for today, with Eric Owens lending his sonorous timbre to the role of Nekrotzar, often dressed in a flamboyant, flowing red robe—one of the many ingenious costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Mark Schowalter was delightfully tipsy as Piet the Pot, Melissa Parks gave a racy, ditzy performance as the sexually charged Mescalina, and Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom breathed enormous comic life into the roles of the White and Black Ministers.

Two singers all but stole the show: counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Go-Go, bobbing around the stage in a white pearlescent globe, sang with impressive purity and offered sly comic timing when called for, at one point appearing onscreen above the orchestra in what appeared to be a mock political campaign. And as Gepopo, coloratura Barbara Hannigan cavorted onstage (and off) like some kind of tart puppet, cut loose from its strings. At one point Hannigan appeared with a spiderlike overlay to her costume, with eight legs sprouting from her head, and wobbling all the way to the floor.

The rest of the cast all deserve mention: Jennifer Black (as Amanda), Renée Tatum (Amando), Wilbur Pauley (Astradamors), Kiera Duffy (Venus), Dennis Blackwell (Ruffiack), Michael Riley (Schobiack), Steven Moore (Schabernack), and Rob Besserer (Atmosphericist). The New York Choral Artists were superb as the people of Breughelland, not only singing but gamely plunging into the fray, in one scene hurling wadded up balls of paper into the audience, as members of the orchestra did the same onstage.

But in the end, Gilbert was the night's hero. Who would have expected, when he announced plans to do a "semi-staged version" of Ligeti's wild, sometimes touching score, that he would complete it with such utter command. (And PS, all three performances ended up being sold out.) It is not hyperbole to say that this production telegraphed a new chapter in the orchestra's distinguished history. A few days later I listened to the radio broadcast of the performance, curious to see if the music survived on its own. Thanks to Gilbert and his extraordinary collaborators, it did.