Le Grand MacabrePhotos - Bernd Uhlig

Le Grand Macabre
has been dubbed the great anti anti-opera of the 20th Century. If you don’t already know, we are not talking about Puccini and Un Bel di Vedremo here. Somewhere during the third act, an 18 foot woman’s derriere lifts off to reveal a disco inside where the whole cast dance Thriller. Spectacular, extravagant and wildly absurd are just the tip of the iceberg.

Adelaide Arts Festival’s biggest ticket event does not disappoint in scale and grandeur, nor has its AD Paul Grabowsky chosen any run-of-the-mill theatre or musical production for his headliner. Premiered in 1978, Le Grand Macabre is an apocalyptic satire, emerging from avant-garde utopian visions of the post-war era. Composer Gyorgy Ligeti is known as a visionary; working outside the notions of ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’, his score is both lavish and fiercely difficult, for both instrumentalists and ears alike. Interspersed with car-horns and doorbells, complex rhythmical conventions create an extreme soundscape, fusing influences as far flung as Beethoven and Baroque, gamelan and Coltrane.

It is the libretto of this piece that delivers the brunt of the narration. Based after a play by Michel de Ghelderode, Ligeti has since deemed it remain sung in English, with surtitles throughout, even here in Australia. A witty critique on society, Macabre brings together politics, humour, the absurd and grotesque all via language with a vulgarity foreign to operatic texts. It is quite shocking and an odd experience for the regular opera goer. The oddity of the libretto is only the beginning of bizarre in this production of Macabre.

Stemming from Ligeti’s fascination with the paintings of Pieter Breughel, the opera is set - as is it’s founding play - in a surreal Breughelland. This has been interpreted by director Alex Olle, of famed Spanish company La Fura dels Baus, as an enormous sculpture of a female body dynamically captured in frozen mid-movement. The woman’s limbs scramble, mouth agape and eyes written with panic; a bold set signifying the atavistic nature of humanity’s fear-response to death. The characters climb and interact with the geography of this giant body, emerging from every possible orifice as the set itself rotates and body parts are removed to create new grottos and graves. Inside the front calf is a kitchen with live chickens; there is a doorway through the right nipple; inside her buttocks (once the inflatable intestines are removed by the chief of secret police) there is a fragment of spinal column used as a lectern and later, the disco and bars. As the head turns at unnatural angles, projections alter the facial expressions, as well as the colours and contours of the rest of the body. The execution of this set is of incomprehensible magnitude and it makes a visual banquet of the entire production.

Every performer brought a strong voice to the stage and gave brave performances. Sexualised nudity is certainly not a regular element of operatic roles, and the costumery by Lluc Castells was as aesthetically varied as it was absurd. Yet in all it’s surreal grandeur the moral of Le Grand Macabre is quite clear; life is short and then you die, so we should probably have a little fun on our way out. This show offers the chance to see contemporary opera in a whole new light; and it somehow feels important, even smugly affirming, to see the highest of arts wave its arse at the world and poke fun at us - and itself - and at all manner of modern austerity.

Adelaide Festival presents
Le Grand Macabre
by György Ligeti

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre | King William Road, Adelaide
Dates/Times: 26 & 28 February 7.00pm, 3 & 4 March 7.00pm
Duration: 2hrs 25 mins (incl interval)
Tickets: $179 - $50
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | www.bass.net.au

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