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Le Grand Macabre

György Ligeti 1923–2006

Opera in 2 acts
Libretto by Michael Meschke & György Ligeti based on Michel de Ghelderode
First performed April 12 1978, Royal Opera, Stockholm

Sung in English with German & English surtitles
Strobe lighting is sometimes seen on stage!

Introductory talks (in German) in the Holzfoyer 30 minutes before performances begin
There's a chamber music concert on Nov 26 inspired by this work

Carefree days in Breughel Land are numbered: a gigantic comet’s hurtling towards earth threatening to eradicate mankind. Impact‘s forecast for midnight. The clock’s ticking …
While Piet the Pot drowns his frustration in drink, Amanda and Amando are looking for a peaceful place to make love. Annoyed by Piet poking his nose in, the lovers defend themselves furiously from the intruder. A peculiar undertaker appears, purporting to be Nekrotzar, alias the Great Macabre. He incites bystanders with visions of the approaching end of the world and ropes in Piet as a helper. Equipped with scythe, trumpet and horse they rush off to the capital. Amanda and Amando are oblivious to the hysteria induced by the imminent apocalypse. They want to make love, hidden in a coffin, until they die. PART TWO Astradamors and Mescalina are trying to break the routine in their long marriage. Mescalina, feeling sexually neglected, demands new proof of her partner’s love. When Astradamors ignores her advances Mescalina begs the goddess Venus for a lover. Her wish is granted: Nekrotzar appears and gets Mescalina to join him a dance, which ends with him ripping her heart out. When Piet and Astradamors locate the comet Nekrotzar indulges in gloomy prophesies: The entire world will be wiped out with no survivors. Astradamors tries to find something positive in this dire situation, looking forward to his new-found freedom as a widower. PART THREE Prince Gogo’s hosting an invitation only fancy-dress party. They all try and close their eyes to the inevitability of their approaching doom with parlour games and lots of booze. When the climax to the evening looms, the Chief of the Gopopo announces the appearance of the Great Macabre. Nekrotzar, who was turned away by bouncers, manages to gatecrash the party. Things look like getting out of control, until Nekrotzar gets into a piss up. Completely legless, the self-proclaimed prophet of doom experiences a moment of weakness, before giving a last rambling speech. Time’s running out. Everyone cowers together in the last seconds before midnight, waiting for the comet to strike. The world goes dark. PART FOUR At dawn the guests, still drunk, assume they’re in the hereafter. But doubts grow about whether the apocalypse actually took place: Cleaners appear to clear up after the party. Mescalina suddenly arrives, reproaching her husband Astradamors about last night. Finally Piet and Astradamors are gasping for a drink  ̶  an unmistakable sign that they’re still alive! The sun rises, and with it day to day life in the city. When Nekrotzar realises the hoped for end of the world never happened, he crumbles inside. Amanda and Amando emerge from their hiding place and get married. Bystanders congratulate them and wonder how to go on living in the here and now.

Doom and gloom in Breughel Land: a Grim Reaper announces that the world will end at midnight. The clock’s ticking …

The impending catastrophe has killed the happy go lucky atmosphere in this imaginary principality stone dead. While two lovers want to end their lives having orgasms, the self-appointed prophet of death Nekrotzar ropes in tipsy Piet the Pot and the astronomer Astradamors and goes to the palace, where the terrifying news has already reached the much loved prince and scheming ministers by way of the chief of the Gepopo, the secret police.

Noisy, sonambulant and downright weird, Ligeti's endgame piece is dressed in a motley cloak beneath which mischief reigns. Belgium’s Michel de Ghelderode’s 1934 La Balade du Grand Macabre was presented to the composer as a tragicomedy mystery play for an opera comissioned by the Royal Opera in Stockholm. As a commentary on avant garde music in those days this Romanian born but since 1956 in exile living Hungarian called his work, tongue in cheek, an »Anti-Anti-Opera« – actually a return to opera in the traditional sense, but »dangerous, exaggerated, completely nuts and smutty«. Inspired by pop art, layers of all kinds of borrowed bits of music, distorted quotes and dry-comic text combine to produce an over the top cocktail: sounds of everyday things alongside neck breaking cascades of coloratura.

The music's the driving force for a strange type of wild world theatre, which includes possibly the best piss-up in operatic history. The apocalypse looks very different through an inebriated haze. In keeping with the motto »no fun without seriousness« – or the other way round – Ligeti's end of the world grotesque about sense and nonsense gives one plenty of food for thought.

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