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Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre in San Francisco

Another of the opera productions I expressed interest in (see my preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005) was the American premiere of György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (1978), in the Royal Danish Opera production, at the San Francisco Opera (until November 21). You can look at production photos from the dress rehearsal here (San Francisco Opera is full of good ideas: take heed, Washington). I wish I could go to see it myself, as I love this opera from its recording and would enjoy seeing it staged. Here's how some of the critics are taking it:

Fer it:

Joshua Kosman, Sex, booze, vampirism and loads of slapstick: Just another night at the opera for György Ligeti (San Francisco Chronicle, October 26):
The guiding spirits here are Rabelais, Alfred Jarry (author of the scandalous 1896 play "Ubu Roi") and the cartoon worlds of Krazy Kat and Tintin, as well as (in more sublimated form) the comic opera tradition of Mozart, Rossini and Verdi. Set in four swift scenes, "Macabre" follows the travels of Nekrotzar -- the Czar of Death, the "Grand Macabre" himself -- as he rises from a cemetery and attempts to sow wholesale destruction among the heedless inhabitants of the whimsically titled Breughelland. Pompous, humorless and enormously taken with himself and his own powers, Nekrotzar expects to be greeted with nothing less than abject terror.

Unfortunately for him, Death gets no respect -- not from the other characters, whose concerns center on sex, alcohol and political advancement, and not from his creator either. While Nekrotzar's pronouncements roll forth in thunderous cadences designed to instill trembling and awe, the rest of the musical texture is mostly a cacophony of chattery pops and thunks. At the same time, "Macabre" is situated squarely -- if uneasily -- within the classical tradition. The overture for 12 car horns is a benign mockery of the brass Toccata that introduces Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (a piece to which Stravinsky offered a more respectful tip of the hat at the beginning of "The Rake's Progress"). Allusions, more or less easily audible, to everything from Beethoven to Offenbach spring up here and there.
Joshua Kosman, Opera crackles and leaps with vibrant, madcap and totally unpredictable 'Macabre' (San Francisco Chronicle, November 1):
The surge of excitement that filled the War Memorial Opera House on Friday night for the U.S. premiere of György Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre" -- a heady, convivial buzz that dovetailed nicely with the profusion of Halloween costumes among the audience -- was something almost vanishingly rare in an American opera house. It was the promise of something utterly new about to unfold, something vivid and brilliant and unpredictable. And Ligeti's wondrous 1978 creation -- a profane, humane comic fable about life in the shadow of the apocalypse -- fulfilled that promise superbly.
Anthony Tommasini, Buffoons in the Bureaucracy and Death on the Doorstep (New York Times, November 2):
With the company's production of Gyorgy Ligeti's black comedy "Le Grand Macabre," which opened on Friday, Ms. Rosenberg has presented the American premiere of another bracing contemporary opera that has been neglected in the United States, though it has been seen in more than a dozen European cities since its premiere in 1978 in Stockholm. Mr. Ligeti, 81, was said not to be well enough to travel from Europe for the opening night.

The boldly modern production from the Royal Danish Opera, directed by Kasper Bech Holten, and the performance of the San Francisco singers and orchestra made a compelling case for this unconventional work. Though there were empty seats about the house, the audience, with notable numbers of festive Bay Area residents arrayed in exotic Halloween costumes, responded with a prolonged ovation. The audience reaction is important to note, because with her passion for contemporary opera Ms. Rosenberg is not just acting on principle. She strongly believes in the theatrical impact and musical richness of works like Mr. Ligeti's opera, and she is right.

Agin' it:

Tiffany Maleshefski, End of opera as we know it (San Francisco Examiner, November 9):
One complaint would be the incoherent storyline, which asks its audience to make an enormous stretch to understand every character's motivation and symbolic placement. It is an ultra-modern opera, completely intentional by Ligeti, who wrote the piece with the belief that traditional opera was no longer relevant to contemporary audiences. Ligeti certainly has a point; but whether he has bridged the gap with this production, at least in the U.S., is questionable.
Stephanie von Buchau, 'Le Grand Macabre,' billed as a comedy, has a sour view of life (Alameda Times-Star, November 2):
WITH music critics from all over America in attendance wishing that their local companies would do something so original, San Francisco Opera Friday night presented another of its repertory coups, the American premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" (1978; revised 1996). It is possible to criticize the self-important company-inspired hoopla -- the klieg lights in front of the War Memorial; the rows of comped Halloween costumed "patrons" at the rear of the orchestra; the cartoony borrowed production from Denmark with its cheesy sex and four-letter words. That doesn't diminish the fact that if SFO had been more on the cutting edge before Pamela Rosenberg got here, it would have performed "Le Grand Macabre" years ago. Then the piece would have been long forgotten and none of the current hype would be necessary.
Richard Bammer, By turns thrilling, boring: 'Le Grand Macabre' turns the Apocalypse into a farce (The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif., November 3):
First, the overture - scored for 12 mechanical "taxi horns." Conductor Michael Boder defined the evening's musical chaos right away, creating what sounded like a dyspeptic "American in Paris." It was clear that the performance was not going to be anything like Puccini's "La Boheme." What followed was a mixture of melodic tangles of sound, some Stockhausen-like blips and bleeps, and some of the composer's patented "planes" of sound, music which avoids traditional pitches and rhythms. Unfortunately, it was by turns thrilling and boring, with little else in between to savor emotionally.
Richard Scheinin, Talented cast landlocked in long-winded 'Macabre' (The Mercury News, November 1):
Ligeti's a certified genius, a creator of amazing sound worlds, with an oeuvre that goes back to the '50s. But his 1978 opera, staged many times in Europe, revised by Ligeti in the '90s, and performed here in English, feels dated, too full of jokes, outrageousness, and endless irony: Oh, Ligeti's doing slapstick. Oh, Ligeti's doing singspiel. Oh, Ligeti's doing Da-da. Oh, Ligeti's honoring Beethoven. Oh, Ligeti's lampooning Monteverdi. Oh, he loves the tradition. He hates the tradition. He's written a comedy? Or is it a tragedy? Both? What? Isn't that funny!

Before anyone gets angry, let me say that I'm a new music freak, going back 35 years. I love much of Roscoe Mitchell's music. I love much of Ligeti's. I even love portions of "Macabre" and applaud San Francisco Opera for presenting a work so unusual. It's enough to go to War Memorial and hear Ligeti's hilarious overture, written for a dozen car horns, sounding like a gaggle of honking geese. So go. But be prepared, because this apocalyptic farce, which boasts some sensational performances, goes on too long, hitting you over the head with outrageousness.

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