Ligeti's opera Le grand macabre can still come as quite a shock to listeners in the 21st century. But what did the press of 1978 think about the premiere performance?
One thing that sticks out from reading the reviews is how different they seem to be from the reviews that we're used to today. The writers had much more space. They used more words. They go into greater detail. Almost a third of The Guardian's review is devoted to a lavish and thorough synopsis of the opera's convoluted plot, while the Financial Times spent half of theirs going over Ligeti's back-catalogue of works to lead the reader from 'the briliant essays in Klangfarbenkomposition' to 'an increasing pre-occupation with theatrical as well as lyrical gesture'. They mention nine different pieces before they even get to the opera. Perhaps this is because in the absence of readily available information (i.e. the internet) it was down to the press to fill in the details, to report the goings-on from the big wide world of the arts for the folks back home.
None of the reviews give a rating. Or offer a short summary of their assessment. In fact the only way to find out what the reviewer actually thought was by reading the article in full. Even then it's not entirely obvious. They rarely reduce their analysis to a simple conclusion of good/bad. If they did, they would still find it difficult to form such a neat conclusion because Le grand macabre resists obvious comparisons and does not conform to any theatrical stock. It's slippery. Many of the reviewers had to discover inventive ways to convey a sense of its relentless spectacle. That’s probably how sentences like this one from The Times came about:
'The play of Le grand macabre is a sort of pantomime, full of slapstick, black humour, surrealism, transvestitism, ridiculous clowning, invented nursery rhymes, punning misquotations, cloacal and erotic jokes, political satire, verbal wit as well as verbal farce and sheer nonsense.'
By all accounts this is a decent summary of what goes on. And how often since do you think they got the chance to print the technical term for a bird's posterior orifice in the arts section?
But then again, how many times have they had to explain Le grand macabre?
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It was always going to be a colossal media event when the Swedish Royal Opera announced that they were producing Ligeti's first work for the stage. He was one of the most important figures in modern music, a bonafide leader of the avant-garde. His music had crossed over into the mainstream after Kubrick used it for his intergalactic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet here he was, in 1978, having finally written his long-delayed maiden opera. And 150 critics from around the world showed up to listen.
'Opera is dead' begins Tom Sutcliffe's review in The Guardian and in a certain way it was. It had been 40 years since Berg wrote Lulu and Schoenberg wrote Moses und Aron, and with the exception of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten from 1965 it was all quiet on the modernist front. The Observer picked up on this too: 'In the second half of our century [the avant garde and opera] have withdrawn beyond hailing distance'. So when they arrived in Stockholm, the critics were hoping for more than just Ligeti's next work. They had bigger expectations. The Guardian goes on: 'if anybody is going to succeed in resurrecting the art of the opera now, Ligeti looks the man'.
You get a sense of how much they wanted this to be true from the level of detail they went into: 'the music to Nekrotzar's death [was] a mirror canon of diminished fifths' (Financial Times). The Times singled out Ligeti's 'strong, clean-limbed counterpoint' as if the polyphonic tradition were guaranteed to offer assurance. All the reviews make a fuss about his quotations of Beethoven and Offenbach, but why focus on these oblique references when the composer himself dismissed them as 'garbage objects'? There are even endorsements from beyond the grave: 'Stravinsky would have been proud of such skill' said The Guardian. It’s as if Ligeti had something to prove. Or read another way, perhaps they were presenting his case before a conservative British public that seemed sceptical this work could have substance.
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Eager to cheer for the home team the critics unanimously singled-out the Englishman Elgar Howarth for conducting the dense and complex score with 'maximum precision and exact emotional intensity' (The Times), 'remarkable accuracy and conviction' (Financial Times), 'imperturbable clarity' (The Daily Telegraph) and 'total authority' (The Stage). That's high praise for anyone, but this was Howarth’s first time conducting opera. Britt-Marie Aruhn, who sang Gepopo, was also described by The Observer as 'a coloratura soprano of exceptional brilliance and accuracy' for an aria that she sung in a giant peacock costume on stilts. The Financial Times concurred that her voice was ‘thrillingly bright and sure in her melismas' even if she was 'somewhat shaky on her roller-skates’.
As for the music:
'The orchestral writing deserves an article to itself. Ligeti’s music has always been distinguished by a phenomenally precise and imaginative ear, but here he has excelled himself in an astonishing range of strange and marvellous instrumental combinations.'
‘The manner is wholly individual: a brilliant exotic music-box of medleys, set-pieces, recurrent motifs, quotations and references proposed with the greatest delicacy, bound together with a quick, taut thread.’
'It gives ample scope for the poetic and lyrical, as well as jocular and bizarre aspects of Ligeti’s musical imagination and inventiveness.'
'None of the music should be considered apart from the spectacle and absurd text which it so brilliantly illustrates.'
(The Sunday Times)
Only Tom Sutcliffe from The Guardian was not fully convinced. He dismissed the project as ill-conceived ('[it] will make a fabulous orchestral suite when Ligeti reconciles himself to that idea'). He questioned its longevity ('I doubt whether it is any more likely than other recent operas to enter the popular repertoire'). He suggested that the composer had traded his integrity for popular success ('There is certainly a growing feeling among ’serious’ composers … that they should welcome the discipline of pleasing a profane market.') But even he was drawn into the opera’s ethic of poor taste ('a wonderful throbbing Passacaglia which leads to a somewhat limp apotheosis' – has counterpoint ever sounded so suggestive?).
The reservations from the other writers were more subtly concealed in the nuances of their qualified praise. Look again: 'sheerly as sound, the score is a masterpiece' (not as music?), 'the best music, though … is the incidental music' (not the singing? the parts that make this into an opera?) 'always effective and sometimes sensuously lyrical' (are they incompatible?), 'a delightful comic opera with perfectly serious undertones' (sounds almost quaint) 'surprisingly coherent' (…surprisingly?). The role of the newspaper critic has always produced a tension when the need to appear impartial has conflicted with the writer’s convictions. This was supposed to be the operatic event of the decade. Maybe they were saving face.
The London Symphony Orchestra performs Ligeti's Le grand macabre at the Barbican on 14 & 15 Jan 2017, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and featuring a cast of Peter Hoare, Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Watts, Pavlo Hunka, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom in a new semi-staging from director Peter Sellars. Watch the trailer here: