Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" is simply the most amazing, bizarre, confusing, debaucherous, and exotic work I've ever heard presented by the New York Philharmonic. It was a fully-staged operatic production in Avery Fisher Hall, a place where opera usually appears in concert form, if at all. There are spoilers below, in case you're reading this before Saturday evening's performance.
The costumes were incredible. The character of Venus, for example, is seven feet tall, so the singer portraying her stood on some sort of stilts. The videos and other visual and aural effects (house lights, stage lights, brass and choir in the balconies, drums in the back) were exciting flourishes on top of everything else in the production. But I'm a sucker for things like that. My favorite part was Nekrotzar's entrance in the second act, as he and members of the chorus and orchestra formed a procession down the aisle of the orchestra level of the hall. The procession began with almost inaudible music from the back of the hall and built as Nekrotzar approached the stage, surrounded by flag-waving singers and musicians. By the time he reached the stage, the tension was palpable.
The orchestra shared the stage with the singers and sometimes covered them. Overall, the female singers were more difficult to hear and understand than the males. That is my one and only technical complaint. However, a note in the program indicated that it wasn't Ligeti's intention that the audience understand every word, that the important words would come out when needed. The Philharmonic included a copy of the opera's libretto in each program, for further reading after the performance. As for the actors' performances, the Black and White Ministers stole the scenes they were in. They bickered and pranced like so many modern politicians. Their competition for the ear of their leader, Prince Gogo, was hysterical. And Prince Gogo himself was fantastic. He's a tiny, thin baritone in a bulbous costume singing falsetto. What's not to like? Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created a completely comedic yet totally believable character of an ineffective, hereditary leader. And the audience loved Nekrotzar, the figure of Death. And in a production like this, why not? Death is the reason for the show.
The music was really peculiar. Except for a snippet of the "Dies Irae" at the beginning none of it was recognizable. But it was jarring and jangly and yet tuneful and almost beautiful at times. It was also unmistakeably Ligeti. I heard sounds that I recognized immediately as coming from the composer of elements of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The musicians of the Philharmonic had never seen this music before but they played it with passion and energy. The percussion were especially notable. They had to play car horns, doorbells, wind machines, and all manner of conventional drums, and they accomplished it all.
And the puppeteers! These performers didn't stop moving for the entire show. They had two puppet theaters on camera and moved effortlessly between them. They showed entire three-dimensional landscapes, an unblinking eye, paper puppets, hilarious text, and even the actors when the scenes called for it. There was a memorable scene where Prince Gogo appears on camera to give a political speech and the chorus sang "Our great leader" over and over, until Gogo ate one of his citizens, one of several paper puppet cutouts that scrolled past him as he talks. The chorus turned against him at that point. I can't imagine why.
And where would this production be without Alan Gilbert? He held the entire show together from start to finish. The orchestra was right with him, low lighting, crazy noises, distracting actors, and all. He had to direct musicians onstage and off, in the second tier and in the back of Avery Fisher Hall. He did it all as if he was born with this piece in his hand. Gilbert never ceases to amaze me with his musical abilities. The audience reserved its loudest and longest ovations for him. If I thought Gilbert could program whatever he wanted before this evening, well, he can really do it now. He and the Philharmonic pulled off this incredible production and received an audience ovation that I've rarely heard before. I'm actually going to be a little disappointed to go back in a few weeks for Sibelius and Brahms. How can this orchestra go back to playing something as simple as a concerto or a symphony after showing this kind of range?