"It's the end of the world as we know it" was the theme of the media blitz preceding the New York premiere of György Ligeti's “Le Grand Macabre”; unleashed on all fronts – banners, television ads, newspaper articles, YouTube clips, including one of Alan Gilbert eating ice cream with Death – it paid off. Our appetites were whetted, and this series of subscription concerts was sold out.
While the New York Philharmonic has occasionally performed opera in concert form, this event was much more ambitious, a staged production of Ligeti’s fantastical work. Upon entering the hall we were greeted by subdued lighting, an immense oval surrounded with spikes or rays was suspended over the orchestra, dressed in black, with a reduced string section. A small stage projected into the auditorium, on its right corner the technical department had set up shop.
Miniature stages, puppeteers and videographers were in plain sight and, guided by Atmosphericist Rob Besserer, changing scenery, animated figures and props were filmed in real time and projected on the giant screen. This turned out to be the main production element, "live animation" by Eduoard Getaz's Giants Are Small
, as designed and directed by Doug Fitch. The singers themselves even occasionally interacted with this apparatus – Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, is first seen as a giant head popping into this miniaturized abstract world. On the other end of the spectrum, the auditorium itself was used as a huge stage by placing some musicians and the chorus into the audience, and having the Grand Macabre's procession in the second part come down the aisles.
Clifton Taylor's lighting set the appropriate moods, and Costume Designer Catherine Zuber completed the transformation of Avery Fisher Hall into Breugelland. Her fantastical attire included body-suits with grass-skirts for the lovers Amando and Amanda, red long-johns for Astramador, grand robes for Nekrotzar, a sort of volley-ball for Prince Go-Go, and a black-widow spider helmet for Gepopo, the head of the secret police.
The production was sung in English, as the composer had requested performances in the major language of the audience. However, as it often happens in opera, much of the text could not be understood. A handsome libretto was provided along with the usual program-book, but as the hall was darkened throughout, it was useless to follow the action. Alan Gilbert and the production team had decided not to use supertitles so the audience could immerse itself fully in the sights and sounds of the production; they even entitled their essay "Don't worry about the words". While this is a valid point, there were times one wished to know in greater detail exactly what was being sung. Not all of the undoubtedly many witty lines did emerge, and those that did were eagerly appreciated.
This was the biggest event of the Philharmonic's season, costing the orchestra upward of $500,000, and it came off brilliantly. For more than two hours we were immersed in Ligeti's absurdist universe with superb singing, deliberately over-the-top acting, and extremely involved playing and conducting. The percussion section acquitted itself with aplomb in the car-horn and doorbell preludes and the many unusual effects the composer requires, and the rest of the orchestra was in turn appropriately strident, beguiling, humorous and colorful. The members of the New York Choral Artists distinguished themselves as the Chorus of Spirits, Whispering Walls, and the People of Breugelland, both on the stage and in the first-tier balcony.
Many of the singers were making their New York Philharmonic debuts, and it was one of the most uniformly strong casts one could imagine. Even an understudy, Audrey Elizabeth Luna, made a strong impression singing Venus, while the vocally indisposed Kiera Duffy acted her part, walking on stilts. Mark Schowalter as Piet the Pot gave a well acted and sung performance of the drunk Everyman, and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum and soprano Jennifer Black were well matched vocally as Amando and Amanda.
Wilbur Pauley was a deep-voiced astronomer Astramadors, but it was mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks as his wife Mescalina who dominated this pair both vocally and dramatically. In spite of her ample size, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the slapstick aspect of the role with determined physicality. Eric Owens as Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre who has come to end the world at midnight, almost paled a little in the face of such impressive singing and acting. Although a powerful voice, his bass-baritone fell just a little short of the threatening presence one expected, and his acting seemed stiff when compared to the rest of the cast.
In the roles of White Minister and Black Minister, tenor Peter Tantsits and bass Joshua Bloom acted and sang with great agility, and the lesser roles of Ruffiack, Schobiak and Schabernack were executed well by Dennis Blackwater, Michael Riley and Steven Moore respectively.
Among the excellent cast two singers stood out – countertenor Anthony Roth-Costanzo as Prince Go-Go, and soprano Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo. Although he is small in stature, Roth-Costanzo's voice carries effortlessly, a full, rich sound which surely must be the envy of many a mezzo-soprano. Equally diminutive and powerful vocally, Hannigan effortlessly dispatched Ligeti's most difficult passages in the highest registers, setting off almost enough sympathetic vibrations to break light-bulbs, as in the famous Memorex commercial. And both of them not only distinguished themselves vocally, but also gave thoroughly convincing portrayals of their characters.
This was no ordinary evening at the Philharmonic by any stretch of the imagination, and the audience knew and appreciated it. Alan Gilbert put himself on the line to bring this work to New York, and he conducted it with great passion and conviction. Ligeti's music may not be the easiest to digest, but presented in such an innovative production it kept everyone spellbound. Hardly any of the usually conservative subscribers left at intermission, and the ovation at the end could not have been more enthusiastic.