Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Big Mac

Le Grand Macabre -- New York Philharmonic, 5/27/2010
Owens, Schowalter, Costanzo, Black, Tatum, Parks, Pauley, Tantsits, Bloom, Hannigan / Gilbert

"Le Grand Macabre" the character (Nekrotzar, played by Eric Owens) comes to announce the death of the world, but his namesake opera announces the death of the very modernist aesthetic in which it's written. A strange choice, which despite some good music leaves the listener with the impression of having wasted his time.

If modernism -- as exemplified brilliantly at the Met this spring in Shostakovich's The Nose and Berg's Lulu, the latter of which may be the exemplary modernist opera (not least for its current form's birth from musicological research) -- shrinks Romantic subjectivity, it takes very seriously its own axes of meaningful activity: compulsion (particularly sexual), science, formal repurposing, and of course the authority of the no-longer romantic but now (pseudo)scientific subject. So Lulu's characters are shown and described as beasts in a menagerie, pulled to doom by the inescapable compulsions of her sexual desirability and the need for money. Le Grand Macabre joins Lulu in finding new uses for old musical forms, but on stage it undercuts the modernist verities. We find sexual compulsion, science, authority (even the modern(ist) authoritarian state), and death itself -- shown as not only ridiculous but impotent.

What is left? Well, simple sex -- neither romantic nor compulsive -- and consumption (the food Prince Go-Go craves and the drink of which Piet and the others are so fond -- Nekrotzar excessively so). That is, the low "bourgeois" satisfactions with which modernism was at odds from the beginning. Without death or these other attention-demanders, neither Nekrotzar nor anyone else has the power to Savonarolistically turn people away from the easy feast of contemporary prosperous life, to make them feel guilty for not attending and giving allegiance to the high and not-quite-humane canon of modernism... like Le Grand Macabre itself. Oops.

It's a sort of postmodern message, but modernist icon Ligeti didn't recast himself as a postmodernist either. The score, for its references and joke orchestrations, is in his characteristic style, and -- except for the interludes, and the brilliant first half of scene three -- for all its interest too much portentous in the old modernist way: the way of Nekrotzar, who turns out to be a sham or impotent or simply irrelevant himself.

An opera about its own obsolescence may have been fun decades ago, when one could laugh off the possible fall of modernist prestige, but today the collapse has come and gone rather matter-of-factly, leaving one to wonder at the action's two hours of elaboration on the obvious. Perhaps an orchestral suite from Le Grand Macabre would now serve the piece best.

(In details, I mostly agree with Zerbinetta's review of the night at Likely Impossibilities.)


  1. Thanks very much for the link! I mostly agree with you as well and love your point about this opera's paradoxical partaking of both modernism and postmodernism.

    Do you think it's maybe a victim of its own, and postmodernism's, success? Today Ligeti has been fully accepted by the establishment while a lot of academic high modernism lacking in postmodern spiciness has been left behind, at least in New York, and the idea of postmodernism in a major concert hall doesn't shock anyone anymore.

  2. Whoops, has it been a week since I read my own blog? Sorry about the delay.

    I do think the piece has been a victim of postmodern's overall advance but I'm not sure Ligeti had much to do with that. Or any opera! -- stuff like Mark Morris may be more in people's minds.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.