What is Le Grand Macabre? Well, it does pretty much what it says as semi-occultist, taboo-transgressing circus of grand theatrical gesture. English National Opera have imported quite a spectacle from the continent as a vehicle for this rarely performed end-of-world satire by Ligeti and it makes an impression.
The piece is a succession of absurd episodes, spilling from and orbiting the body of a woman frozen in time as she fears some sort of catastrophic corporeal malfunction. This, straightaway, is the first masterstroke of La Fura dels Baus' production concept, a meta-image of where the action is taking place: the woman, shown living - and possibly dying - in squalor is shown first on screen then replicated on a huge installation that serves as the set throughout the opera. They've called it Claudia. It's brilliant.
The absurdity and terror of this situation spawns characters. Two lovers, all exposed sinew like the plastinated bodies of Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits appear and attempt to copulate (it has the same repellant fascination and humour as the famous Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse Of Horror V in which the family's bodies are inverted for the final chorus). The Grand Macabre himself pops out of Claudia's mouth and arms himself for the evening's work - to bring the world (i.e. this fleshy microcosm of the world, but the metaphor is already breaking down to excorporate everything) to an end. More worldly recognisable characters are also involved - the drink-sodden Piet the Pot and his friend Astrodamors, suffering psychologically what Claudia wrestles with physically under his domineering nymphomaniac wife Mescalina.
Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne are nicely cast as the contradictory lovers, ardent, lyrical and, physically, utterly repellant. Both Piet and Astrodamors, as the human figures on stage have the most wretched, unforgiving vocal tasks. Alas, Astrodamors is a step to far for the usually magnificent Frode Olsen. Pavlo Hunka's ashen Mussolini of a Nekrotzar is domineering enough but rather prosaic in a role which probably needs more vocal thunder.
One has the feeling that La Fura dels Baus director Alex Ollé knows pretty much what he's doing. He never wrestles with the piece, which is invariably punchy and manic and certainly never explains itself. Rather the written jokes are nicely delivered and there's plenty of interpolated humour besides. Indeed the grotesque end-of-days vision is rendered, if not palatable, then manageable by the relentless farce both in the libretto and on the stage. It must be said that Ligeti's rigour in serving de Ghelderode's original fin-de-sieclé, Breughel-Boschian concept is the main advocate of the score. One can discern the formal units in the music (if not always the programme-trumpeted stylistic parody) and Ollé has also chased the dramatic purpose in the twists and turns of the staging rather than responding to the music.
The second half of the production ups the ante once again. The versatile set of Claudia, fascinatingly manipulated with projection and separable body parts in the first half, is completely thrown open. The head, thrust out in terror rotates through 360 degrees as in The Exorcist and the potty-mouthed Black and White ministers that squeeze from the huge anus, pull the backside apart to reveal the intestine as a none-too-covert war zone. This third act is the most assured comic passage in the piece with, Dan Norman and Simon Butterkiss' Ministers owning their well-honed shtick with Andrew Watts' gold-suite Prince Go-Go. Inamongst all this is cast the vocally rock-like performance of Suzanna Andersson, a stutter-gun of crazy coloratura and the cabaletta to the cavatina delivered as the Japanese pop-pink porn-kitten of Chewbacca's dreams back in the first half (yes, it's that mad). The riot reaches a climax in a disco sequence that gets the best reception of the evening in incorporating an apposite homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It is most certainly the night of the living dead.
Unfortunately and rather lilke the toxic shock and hangover that the whole opera might be arguaed to represent, the fourth act is an over-distended denoument. Nekrotzar, inebriated, fails to bring apocalypse and the cast realise they are not doomed. In fact this may be the saddest span of the opera, recognising that the party of abandon is as absurd as the possibility of annihilation. Life either continues, monotonously, or it ends. Though it's formally fairly satisfying I couldn't quite process the Don Giovanni-like epilogue ensemble number which seemed a bit neat.
Clearly this production is a sensory and intellectual torrent, an experience that not deconstruction and discussion can really contain the measure of. Baldur Brönnimann's stewardship of the commendable house orchestra seemed unimpeachable. There were no weak links from chorus to dancer-actors to technicians. The opera certainly throws fresh light on my experience in watching a half-comparable piece, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, back in August. Birtwistle's work is a more totemic, more po-faced sequence of episodes but I enjoyed Ligeti's work more for more than just its humour. The music does have pockets of self-interested lyricism like ribbons stretched between the barbs of satire. It wasn't enough to make me feel comfortable using the word 'beauty' in respect of this piece but it did leaven the experience, investing it with humanity and much-needed respite from its invariable brutality.