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Work of the Week – György Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre

On 14 February 2015, a new production of György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre will receive its premiere at Aalto-Musiktheater in Essen, Germany, directed by Mariame Clément and with music conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk.

Le Grand Macabre received its world premiere in 1978 in Stockholm. Ligeti himself called it an “anti-anti-opera”, referring to his simultaneous adherence to and distancing from operatic conventions. He does in some ways obey the rules of opera writing: the text can be clearly understood and the plot is defined within scenic limitations. However, Ligeti also consciously advocated the concept of breaking with opera’s traditions:

I was thinking schematically about creating comic events on stage, and the music was also supposed to be immediate, ridiculous, exaggerated, colourful and insane. The novelty of this music theatre shouldn’t manifest itself in the formalities of the production, but in the inner core of the music. – György Ligeti

Ligeti plunges into creating his vision from the outset: the opening prelude for twelve car horns shows what kind of musical excesses the audience can expect from Le Grand Macabre. The music accompanies and catalyses the events on stage, resulting in a celebratory overload of the senses. However, the anarchy in the orchestra pit is not simply a means to an end. Ligeti never loses track of the narrative plot of the opera, an approaching apocalypse in the fantasy world of Breughelland:

It is the calculating artistry that keeps the Grand Macabre with all its different ingredients in check. Transparency is created by consciously incorporating the details into the bigger picture. It allows us to realize the remarkable, macabre gravity of the situation that is part of the hilarious ambiguity of the opera. In the end, it leaves us with not only delight, but also an unpleasant feeling. – Ulrich Dibelius

Following the premiere, Le Grand Macabre will run in Essen until the 20 March. More information about the work and other opera heavyweights is available in the current issue of schott aktuell: Giants of 20th Century Opera.

Photo: Graz Opera / Dimo Dimov