György Ligeti´s "Le Grand Macabre" is weird in itself, but the conditions of its local premiere have been weirder. As a result of the unsolved conflict between the Colón orchestras and the authorities, there was no orchestra, an essential matter for a composer whose sense of color was enormous. Of course it was a foregone conclusion, for the City Government has shown no signs of a favorable disposition to arrive at a solution. But the Colón´s Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi went full speed ahead and sent the airplane tickets to the technical staff of La Fura del Baus, the numerous foreign singers and the conductor. Thus the forced compromise of presenting it in an arrangement based on two pianos and percussion and the decision to offer four free performances called "rehearsals with public"; pride of place for the tickets went to the opera subscribers of 2010.
This first opera of the season may well be the last. Anyway, "rehearsal" was an improper name, for the performances were fully adjusted and professional. Of course, the famous avantgarde Catalan company has done the piece elsewhere with great success, and all the singers have interpreted their parts before. The only "new" factor was that the accompaniment was different; however, I found it didn´t come out so badly in comparison with the Salonen-conducted CDs, for in fact there were six players producing a vaster sound than originally announced: two pianos and percussion, but also celesta, organ and especially synthesizer, which can imitate brass sounds. Nowhere in the programme was a basic fact cleared up: was this version concocted by Ligeti? And if not, by whom? Conductor Baldur Brönnimann?
It is very seldom that I can write this statement: the production was better than the opera. But it so happens that the extravagance of the libretto found its match in a display of visual imagination never seen before at the Colón. You can dislike some ideas of La Fura, but the technical accomplishment is astonishing: a gigantic doll in prone position opens its orifices or whole parts of its anatomy, changing color and expression with hyperrealist verisimilitude. In fact, it is so fascinating that it makes less visible the dramatic grossness of the libretto concocted by Ligeti and Michael Meschke on the original 1934 play by the Belgian surrealist Michel de Ghelderode. It is always dangerous to treat profound subjects as a grotesque, and the end of the world announced by Nekrotzar, an "angel of Death", has to be much scarier than in the pat and unwitty scenes concerning sadomasochism or politics. I find the final "happy end" scenes particularly disappointing. A change to cataclysm might have made the piece more relevant, although it wouldn´t save its irremediable weakness. Only the charming duets of lovers are a relief in this silly world.
Of course, Ligeti could be a great composer, but I find him here only intermittently so: in those duets, so fluent and iridiscent; in some interludes that attain terrible repercussions on the listener´s psyche; in the richness of the offstage choirs. But by and large, I don´t accept "Le Grand Macabre" as a great opera.The original version was premiered in 1978; the revision, in 1997.
La Fura´s people must be mentioned: the co-producers Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco (she is Argentinian); the marvelous design of the doll by Alfons Flores; the costumes by Lluc Castells, sometimes too grotesque; the marvelous lighting by Peter Van Praet; and the strong video images of Frank Aleu, redolent both of concentration camps and the vivid world of Pieter Brueghel (well, supposedly everything happens in "Brueghelland").
The musical side went very well, the six players responding professionally to Brönnimann´s conducting, and the singers versatile and in full accord with the staging. Splendidly ringing tenor Chris Merritt, still in full form; Roderick Earle as the baritone Nekrotzar, giving his best to a nondescript character; Brian Asawa in full sweet voice as the countertenor Prince Go-Go; and the stratospheric soprano Susana Andersson dealing handsomely with the awesome fireworks of the Chief of the Secret Police. Nice work from soprano Ilse Eerens and mezzo Frances Bourne as Amanda/Amando, and from Gustavo De Gennaro (The White Minister) and Javier Galán (The Black Minister). The ungrateful parts of Astradamors and Mescalina were well taken by Wilbur Pauley and Ning Liang.
It was a great success with the very mixed public of subscribers, "Fureros" and general audience attracted by being able to watch a Colón show for free.
I will be brief concerning "Carmen", which opened Buenos Aires Lírica´s season at the Avenida. They interestingly chose the rarely done original version as an "opéra-comique": with spoken dialogue instead of the recitatives added by Ernest Guiraud. The artists managed to sing in tolerable French.
I liked the conducting of Alejo Pérez, always alert and well-contrasted, although I found the "Danse bohème" too slow. The choirs were less polished than their usual standard under Juan Casasbellas, but acceptable, whilst the Teatro Argentino´s Children Choir under Mónica Dagorret was spontaneous and in tune. The find was Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle (debut), a Don Jose of firm timbre and convincing projection. Mezzo Adriana Mastrángelo, whom I usually like a lot, seemed less involved as Carmen, though she sang well. Oriana Favaro was a refined and sensitive Micaela. Leonardo Estévez was unconvincing as Escamillo, with a disagreeable top. Of the rest I would only single out the clearly sung Zúñiga of Walter Schwarz.
Unfortunately, I found Marcelo Lombardero and his team at their worst in a "Carmen" that seemed out of time and place: break-dance in something like Villa Soldati isn´t my idea of "Carmen"; or innkeeper and smugglers openly gay; or a badly conceived stage picture for Act I, with a graffiti-laden wall officiating as a police quarter with an absurd incident at the very beginning, and then the chorus "Sur la place" went for nothing, for obviously the officers couldn´t see the alluded square. The Third Act was terrible, with a crummy urban depot substituting for the required mountain pass. And the projections in the Fourth just a way to spend less in actors. Diego Siliano did the stage designs, Luciana Gutman the costumes, Horacio Efron the lighting. A couple of well-observed dramatic touches by Lombardero didn´t save the night.