Not the End of the World: Le Grand Macabre at the Semperoper Dresden

Ligeti – Le Grand Macabre

Venus / Gepopo – Hila Baggio
Amanda – Katerina von Bennigsen
Amando – Annelie Sophie Müller
Prinz Go-Go – Christopher Ainslie
Astradamors – Frode Olsen
Mescalina – Iris Vermillion
Piet vom Faß – Gerhard Siegel
Nekrotzar – Markus Marquardt
Weißer Minister – Aaron Pegram
Schwarzer Minister – Matthias Henneberg
Ruffiak – Reinhold Schreyer-Morlock
Schobiak – Lim Wooram
Schabernack – Markus Brühl
Chorsoli – Frank Blümel, Jo Hyunkwang, Park Yeani, Anna Semenow, Heike Wommelsdorff

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Omer Meir Wellber.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Semperoper, Dresden, Germany.  Sunday, November 3rd, 2019.

In common with last night’s The Bassarids, any new production of Le Grand Macabre is an event.  For its local premiere, the Dresden Semperoper fielded a strong cast, featuring international guests as well as members of the ensemble, to join the house’s incomparable chorus and orchestra.  The staging was confided to Calixto Bieito, one of the most brilliant and insightful stage directors of today.  The ingredients were certainly there for a memorable evening – but did it actually deliver?

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

As with his other recent productions, Bieito gives us a staging that is subtle and reveals itself gradually to its spectators.  At first sight, he appears to be taking the work at face value – the surrealistic plot is laid out with clarity and no small doses of devilishly dark humour.  Having Amanda and Amando (here very much two young ladies) strap buckets onto each other, Amando inserting his into Amanda’s, was an inspired touch.  The set (Rebecca Ringst), consists of a curved walkway that revolves, adding a visual complexity which appears to match the twists and turns of Ligeti’s ingenious score.  A giant inflatable globe is suspended over the scene, upon which video imagery (by Sarah Derendinger) is projected – a pair of buttocks, a close-up of a goldfish, or a spinning disco ball.  What struck me yet again was how musical Bieito’s approach felt.  The visuals seemed to mirror and amplify the remarkable sound world produced by the orchestra and the singers.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

The opening was arresting.  From the first balcony we heard booing greeting the conductor, Omer Meir Wellber’s, entrance and a group of individuals stormed out to the strains of the opening car horn chorus.  It later became apparent that this was, in fact, the chorus.  Having them based in the auditorium, lauding the Prince or expiring at the apparent end of the world, arms hanging over the balcony, created a gap between the elite on stage (the Prince, Chief of Police, Nekrotzar et al) and the ‘people’ in the auditorium.  When the end of the world never came, the globe started to deflate and the characters on stage started to get dressed in formal wear.  The presence of zombie figures walking down the walkway, or off the stage into the pit, pointed to something much deeper – a theme that frequently appears in Bieito’s work, that of the manipulation of the people by the elites.  It’s as if the message was that Nekrotzar didn’t manage to cause the end of the world this time, but that he and the others will just carry on regardless, despite the visible damage caused to the zombie figures and the people in the balcony.  Of course, this is a very pertinent idea, but I’m not entirely convinced it worked in this context.  It seemed rather too earnest for a work that revels in its anarchic surrealism.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

What we do get it is a visually striking evening and similarly the musical rewards were plentiful, reflecting the exceptional standards of the house.  Wellber led a vibrant reading, sensibly paced, that revelled in the score’s vibrant eclecticism.  His reading felt so logical, textures seamlessly integrating into the next, making use of a seemingly limitless palette of instrumental colours.  The sheer rhythmic precision that he obtained from both the Staatskapelle and the Staatsopernchor was phenomenal – especially so given their disparate locations around the auditorium, with instrumentalists also appearing at points in various locations on the balconies.  Likewise, that superb chorus was staggering in the accuracy of their pitching, particularly in their repeated cries of ‘Unsren Fürsten’, absolutely spot-on rhythmically.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

The cast of principals had clearly been equally very well prepared.  The text was impeccably clear across the board, rendering the bilingual surtitles superfluous.  Furthermore, the entire cast dispatched Ligeti’s angular vocal writing with the utmost assurance.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Hila Baggio sang her roles with stratospheric ease, her light, slightly chalky soprano, dispatched the extreme tessitura with astounding abandon.  As Nekrotzar, Markus Marquardt, used his substantial bass-baritone to descend to sepulchral depths (vividly echoed by the low brass), as well as powerful heights.  There were a few intrusive aspirates in the line, but the accuracy with which he executed the challenging music was impressive.  Gerhard Siegel sang Piet in his characterful tenor, switching between registers effortlessly.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Mescalina was sung by Iris Vermillion in a deliciously chesty mezzo with fabulous comic timing.  She gamely entered into the spirit of things, making her need to be serviced by a ‘well-hung’ visitor hysterical to watch.  As her husband, Frode Olsen, also displayed great comic timing as Astradamors and also descended to extreme vocal depths with resonance.  Christopher Ainsline sang Prinz Go-Go in a pale but rounded countertenor, which carried well into that glorious acoustic.  The two ministers were robustly sung by Aaron Pegram and Matthias Henneberg, while Katerina von Bennigsen and Annelie Sophie Müller blended enchantingly as Amanda and Amando.

Photo: © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Musically this was a performance on the very highest level.  It seems impossible to conceive of a performance as strong as this, from the accuracy of the house forces, to the sheer infectiousness of the ensemble feeling created by the cast.  Bieito’s staging certainly brought considerable insight to the work.  As the starry sky disappeared at the end, the globe deflated and the cast put on street clothes, there was a sense of returning to normality for some, but death and destruction for others.  This is certainly a potent idea, of someone able to end the world because he can, without any care for the consequences.  It makes for an utterly logical conclusion.  And yet, I left not entirely convinced that this remained true to the spirit of the piece.  What Bieito can certainly not be accused of is blandness and he unquestionably populated his stage with potent and believable characters.  This is definitely an evening that offers theatrical insight and musically is absolutely superb.

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