"AJ: Then do you take the libretto as having a moral?
LIGETI: Absolutely not. It has no moral.
AJ: You enjoy it for what it is.
Interview with Adrian Jack, 1974
Penned by György Ligeti in collaboration with Swedish puppeteer Michael Meschke after the 1934 play La balade du grand macabre by Belgian avant-guarde dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, Le Grand Macabre enacts a kind of terrifying post-trauma, displaying violent actions so inhuman that they disturb reality. In short, Le Grand Macabre is a monster. It doesn't show us who we really are so much as who we pray to god we aren't.
The reference point for Ligeti is the post-WW2 moral and ethical crisis and collapse of societal codes. Ligeti, who lost his father and brother to concentration camps and had to be smuggled over the border from Hungary to Austria on a mail train, was a big fan of such work as Fluxus and Samuel Beckett, which existed in the void left by the war's events and the grapple with the problem of art's role within it.
Getting a handle on Ligeti's narrative in Le Grand Macabre certainly isn't easy. Narratives compete for prominence like drowning people pushing on each other to stay above water. Just when you think you have a handle on an authentic ontology - a motif in the music, a character trait, a logical sequence of events - it slips away. Pennies disappear faster than they can drop, making a viewing an extremely destabilising experience. There is a logic here, but it is elusive and intuitive. As Ligeti explains:
"In this plot so many different stories are woven in, therefore the stories become ambiguous. Death is at the same moment a kind of Don Quixote and has his Sancho Panza and his Rosinante. But his Rosinante is not functioning, so he takes his Sancho Panza (it is a drunken Flemish ordinary man—he is the only person that doesn’t believe that he is Death), and this Sancho Panza makes him drunk so that it will turn out that he was Death, but he cannot kill persons. So the supernatural layer of the story is corrupted by Man. When Death is the only person who dies, he is coming from the supernatural level to the normal level. It is a false bottom, because you have the feeling it is tragic, but this is only mask, and under this, if you take this off, it's very comic. But if you take it away further, it's tragic again. "
This rendition, directed by Komische Intendant and Australian shock-jock Barrie Kosky, opens with a cart, a couple of garbage bins and a pile of naked bodies. Two soldiers come out and proceed to adopt sexual positions, stroking each other lovingly and discussing the prospects for them sneaking off to a dark place somewhere to fuck. An oblivious 'Nekrotzar', the personification of Death, soon enters, wondering what's going on, ripping out a man's ribcage and eating it, and predicting the end of the world.
And in essence, the cornucopia of grotesqueness repeats itself ad nauseum, one horrifying human behaviour after another, like a layer cake of transgressions. Ligeti, and the writer of the original play, Michel de Ghelderode, based the work on a painting by Bruegel The Triumph of Death, and like the painting, it operates in a similar frenzied landscape. Says Ligeti, "Everything is very fast, like a comic strip." This is an opera about forgetting - even the narrative continually forgets itself.
Kosky discards the deeper reverberations of the opera and focuses almost entirely on its style. The approach here is one of performative play of signifiers, and letting the nuts and bolts of the opera take care of themselves. Characters are hollowed out, now not only the puppets Ligeti envisaged, but images of puppets. Any deeper functioning, if there is any, is left alone.
Whilst this approach has the obvious danger of being a superficial encounter, at its best it realises an element of the opera Ligeti was always pursuing. He himself stated "The persons are very simple. There is no deep psychology, nothing ambiguous. It's like a marionette play". To dig too deep into the mechanics of the opera, to try to rationalise it, would be to entirely change its idea. An approach concerned with surfaces and appearances is entirely legitimate and, perhaps for Kosky, this is what attracted him to it in the first place. Ideally, the project is to turn the opera into some kind of Luis Buñuel style transgressive dinner-party, the familiarity and unfamiliarity of signifiers acting as a provokation to a broader dialogue about accepted norms within the audience - their scoffing and wheezing providing an additional instrument to Ligeti's score.
But these feel like old ideas, and actually they are. This is a remount of Kosky's first production of Le Grand Macabre in 2003. That production was full of shock, promoted as "Eine geile Nacht" ("a horny night") and was even credited with saving the Komische from funding cuts of the German government.
Shock does date. What was alarming to audiences 10 years ago just isn't now - because... it's an idea from 10 years ago. If you put it on now, the effect of shock is kind of reversed - it's not only lost its ability to change, it becomes an instrument of status quo. Look back at what was achieved. Look what we've established.
Sometimes there is value in such a move, if a production becomes more relevant, say, or if many people missed it the first time around, or if it's for a young (and therefore after 10 years, new) audience. None of these apply here. The only rationale I could find was that this was a show pitched Summer tourists interested in a taste of the Komische. Whatever the reason, to do this to Le Grand Macabre is to take away any capacity the opera has for deeper resonance. For this reason, it does extreme disservice to Ligeti's text. What could be revolutionary becomes passe. The form betrays the content.
All of which begs the question - has the radical energy of Kosky been forgotten? This production is anything but radical, and if anything denotes a transformation of Ligeti's radical energy into something entirely, unquestionably conservative. There doesn't seem to have been any real attempt to update the opera from its 2003 version, certainly not to change a winning formula, and Ligeti's opera is, unfortunately, the collateral damage.
Le Grand Macabre
Libretto von Michael Meschke und György Ligeti,
from the Michel de Ghelderodes play La Balade du Grand Macabre
Revised Version from 1996
Directed by Barrie Kosky
Set and costume design by Peter Corrigan
Excerpts from this review were taken from the 1974 interview with Adrian Jack while Le Grand Macabre was under development. The interview is available here: http://www.ronsen.org/monkminkpinkpunk/9/gl2.html