Fools’ Dance of Death

György Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars

Peter Sellars and Sir Simon Rattle
(Photo: Martin Walz)

The end of the world fails to take place because Death is too drunk. An idea as absurd as it is grotesque that was the inspiration for one of Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s greatest works: the opera Le Grand Macabre, which was written in the mid-1970s, commissioned by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. The work was based on the play Le Balade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian poet Michel de Ghelderode in 1934, one year after Hitler came to power, as a satirical tragicomedy against the Nazis. “I made something more general out of it,” Ligeti said in an interview. “Fear of death and the delusional belief that it won’t happen to you – that is the great theme of the piece. Actually nothing unusual, because we all try to block out the fact that we have to die.”

Off to “Breughelland”

In his play, Ghelderode conjured up the whimsical atmosphere which the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel created in their paintings: the desperate, intemperate lust for life of people in the face of death. The prince of hell, who Ligeti calls Nekrotzar, is the main character. Emerging from a tomb, he threatens to destroy the world. But very quickly it becomes clear that this Grim Reaper is a figure of ridicule. Together with the drunkard Piet the Pot, he travels throughout the land spreading fear and terror. But the people, obsessed with power and sex games, and stupefied by alcohol and eating binges, won't take him seriously – not the feeble court astrologer Astradamor, his sadistic wife Mescalina, the moronic Prince Go-Go, his corrupt ministers and the head of the secret police Gepopo, or the young couple Amanda and Amando who only have eyes for each other and need a place for their tryst.

Failed Apocalypse

When the comet prophesied by Astradamor strikes the earth, Nekrotzar is drunk. He fails to bring the world to an end and disappears back into his grave where the two lovers recently spent a night of passion. Ligeti was inspired by this strange ensemble of fools, creating a score that employs irony and satire to drive the depravity, obscenity and brutality of the scenes to the extreme. While composing the work, Ligeti wrote to his librettist: “Everything should be characterised by marionettisation, even the live singers have something automaton-like and alienating about them. You’ll hear it in the music. Although everything is highly emotional, the emotions are stylised, puppet-like and deep frozen.” What also distinguishes Ligeti’s music is the joyful and playful approach to musical traditions that are wittily and subtly transformed. Ranging from the overture of car horns, an allusion to the opening fanfare of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, to the quotations from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Offenbach and Strauss to jazz and pop standards. Baroque ground bass models such as the Passacaglia and Chaconne are represented as well as modern dance rhythms. Ligeti demands the utmost from singers and musicians alike: ludicrous coloratura, shrill clusters, complex rhythms, oscillating soundscapes ...

A classic opera

“Ligeti is a playful composer,” says Peter Sellars, who directed the new version of the opera at the Salzburg Festival in 1997. He now takes on the stage production of Le Grand Macabre with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The role of Nekrotzar is sung by Pavlo Hunka. The playful approach to a very serious issue – according to Sellars – is what marks out the quality of the piece. The heavily revised new version in particular shows that Ligeti created not just a crazy collage with Le Grand Macabre, but a classic opera.