sat 20/07/2024

Le Grand Macabre, ENO | reviews, news & interviews

Le Grand Macabre, ENO

Le Grand Macabre, ENO

The ENO starts the season with a howler

Door-sized detachable nipples, an angel of death with a dick to die for (literally), a cave of an arse housing a disco-dancing unit of storm troopers and an all-singing all-dancing couple of randy cadavers. Ever wondered what the Europeans might have done if they’d ever got hold of the Carry On brand? The ENO’s new production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre offers up one possibility.

Few new productions have been so keenly anticipated as this one from Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus that opened the ENO’s new season last night.

And it was hard not to be impressed by the scale of their endeavour. There on stage stood an enormous fibreglass model of a female figure, whose fatty body, sprawling thighs, radiating eyes and enormous backside became the home to and canvas for – through several mighty, technically incredible projections – the catastrophically pretentious and profoundly, one might even say continentally unfunny opera Le Grand Macabre.

It all began in a cheap bit of misanthropy. A video relays the story of a sad, fat woman, before whom a TV flickers away and a Big Mac, pizza, cake, chips, coke (she’s a big girl) beckons. She starts to stuff her face and begins to choke. As she tumbles and falls, the film freezes on her agonised form that then cleverly transforms into the onstage form that dominates the rest of the action. I don’t want to come over all po-faced here but that no one seemed to notice how ugly it was for a well-heeled audience to start howling and hooting with laughter at this impecunious woman’s disgusting habits was deeply depressing.

Anyhow, with the start of the opera proper, feebleness quickly comes to the aid of the ugliness. A whole series of irredeemably unattractive characters, all of whom inhabit this dying woman’s body, roll out of various bodily orifices: a slob, Piet the Pot, a Max Moseley figure, the Astradamors, who is chased by his dominatrix, Mescalina, a camp tyrant Prince Go-Go, a grim reaper, Nekrotzar, two cadavers, Amanda and Amando and Gepopo, the Chief of the Secret Police. They chase each other around the stage and through the body like a long lost episode of Benny Hill. They shout, screw and sing. They knock down some operatic straw men. The second half has what I think Europeans count as political satire and some terribly self-indulgent, terribly European humming and hawing on the eternal mysteries of life and death.

The real mystery was the work itself. How could a piece be so much of a self-conscious joke, yet so terribly unfunny, so hyperactively surreal, yet so very unmemorable? The man who provides the only reason to stay, Ligeti, also provides the main reason to leave. What Ligeti does with the orchestra is mesmerising, his musical ideas running helter-skelter around the orchestra like a child on sugared buns. At others times – at least twice – a passacaglia is summoned and the singing – mostly solid, and at time exceptional - unfurls in ensemble like a circle of petals or contrapuntal zoo. (Of particular note among the singers was Susanna Andersson’s Gepopo.) Yet Ligeti also penned the execrable libretto.

“Total theatre” company Fura was not without fault. How could a company have been so extravagant and yet provided so little? It seemed as if the more they did, the less was there.Nothing but crudity resulted from their most ambitious venture, the video projections, whose content – skeletons, a night sky, a CGI pool of writhing humanoids – seemed to come from the mind of an unimaginative 11-year-old.

One or two of the most off-colour passages raised a smile. The sight of Susan Bickley’s sadistic Mescalina scrabbling around like a spider, offering Frode Olson’s Astradamors her vagina, then riding him while screaming, “Hopla, shithole! Hopla, shithole!” Now, that was funny for the right reasons. The rest was funny for completely the wrong ones.

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