Thursday, 24 September 2009

Breugelland - thoughts on Le Grand Macabre ENO

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre is what he called an "anti-anti-opera" so thinking in opera terms doesn't work so well. Ligeti conceived it as a way of filling a perfomance space with anything that would have dramatic impact - theatre with music and many other things rather than music-theatre. La Fura dels Baus's production at the ENO is a very good realization of the composer's basic concept.

Pity the concept is so much of its time in many ways. Like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Peter Blake for the Beatles) everything possible pulled together at random, the impact being the diversity. Personally I'd cut the Black and White Minister dialogue because it's daft, but it is so central to the whole that cutting it won't work. Cosmic panoramas don't have to be perfect in all parts.

The idea goes back forever though : Ligeti and Ghelderode deliberately invoked Breugelland, the spirit of chaos and infinitely detailed panoramas. Click on the image to enlarge. It's Breughel's The Triumph of Death - see the figure of Death on his mangy horse ? That was the image behind the original production. In the ENO production, Death is a fat man on a plastic bubble horse: but again this is perfectly in keeping with the Breughel/Bosch concept where all assumptions are overturned and made ironic. The whole medieval concept of feast and famine, extremes of excess and deprivation, moments where pleasure is frantically seized from the relentless progress of death.

Think Carmina Burana, with less singing. Click HERE for another Breughel image, a companion to the Triumph of Death. It's The Battle between Carneval and Lent. The people are feasting before Lent and austerity sets in. How do they know they might not be dead when Lent ends? So they party while they can.

So La Fura dels Baus also brings out other very important aspects of the chaotic mindset behind this opera or whatever you call it. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die!" Hence the grim, brutalist sex, not for the sake of reproduction but as momentary distraction from death. Thus too the giant woman with the stale Big Macs in her lonely room, and the fixation on body parts and functions. These are in the script and in Bosch and to a lesser extent in Breughel. Look at the image of Bosch HERE and see just how seriously obscene medieval art could be. There's a person admiring himself in a mirror, but the mirror is a monster's behind! So the giant on stage at the ENO is a metaphor, its very hugeness a comment on the small-scale frantic activity all round it.

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