Le Grand Macabre - English National Opera, 17 September 2009
The Royal Opera House spend tens of thousands on top singers like Jonas Kaufmann and Ferruccio Furlanetto. English National Opera put their money where you can see it in the form of Claudia the 40ft woman.
The astonishingly life like fibreglass construction revolves, disgorges the cast via various orifices, ages to a skeletal remnant in front of our eyes (clever projections) and in a final coup de théâtre, parts her vast buttocks to reveal a mobile disco packed with dancing squaddies. Spectacular costuming includes beyond-naked flayed muscle suits for serial shaggers Amando and Amanda and an all-over pink fur coat for Venus the love goddess. Jaw-dropping is an inadequate term. I came dangerously close to applauding the scenery. And let's face it, you just know you're in for something special when the programme credits include inflatable (intestines) and vagina scultpure [sic].
Not quite what Ligeti had in mind for Le Grand Macabre. But the non-story of Grim Reaper Nekrotzar's ultimately impotent threat to destroy all of boozing, fornicating, double-dealing humanity is served well in the new La Fura dels Baus production. The collapse of the fantasy Belgium of Bruegelland is mirrored in the decay and disintegration of Claudia's body. Visual references to Flemish art abound - Bosch's monsters, Brueghel's crowds, Magritte's dreamy skies - and of course the Rubenesque flesh-mountain centre stage.
But for all the fabulously inventive and brilliantly executed visuals, it still seems like a long two hours. I can't blame the performers - all were excellent and totally committed. Susan Bickley as the ageing nymphomaniac Mescalina dominated her scenes as she did her hapless husband Astradomors (Frode Olsen, more memorable I am afraid for his corset and waders than anything else). Susanna Andersson handled the dazzling vocal and physical gymnastics of both Venus and Gepopo with indecent ease - the performance of the night.
And it wasn't the orchestra's fault either. They negotiated everything brilliantly for Baldur Brönnimann, from the opening car-horn fanfare to the closing Strauss-like passacaglia .
I fear the problem lies in the opera itself. It has its moments - the two mentioned above for starters. But it's not consistently dramatic or absorbing, or even funny, and some of the wacky percussion effects which might have seemed novel and exciting on its debut 30 years ago are looking a little dated now. I'm a great Ligeti fan, but this is not his best or even his most original writing, by far.
It's telling that a bout of hysterically foul-mouthed buttock-projected name-calling by the rival Black Minister and White Minister (Simon Butteriss and Daniel Norman) threatens to upstage everything else. (Top insult? "Northerner" got the most laughs, closely followed by "organist". "C0cksucker" didn't get a look-in.....).
When the best thing about an opera is not part of the original libretto - and spoken to boot - you have to wonder if it's past its sell-by date.
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curtain call photos: intermezzo.typepad.com