György Ligeti’s polymorphous music, a product of the 1960s, promises no familiar idiom even today. Ligeti himself described the bizarre and exaggerated music of Le Grand Macabre to be “far removed from the territory of Wagner, Strauss and Berg.” And judging from director Tatjana Gürbaca’s new production here in Zürich, it was an inviting bill to fill and produce. Gürbaca pulls out all the stops: a sense of the absurd, the unpredictable, the totally irrational, not unlike the Dadaists who made their debut in Zurich back in 1916. Le Grand Macabre is often cited as a quintessential work of a Neo-Dada genre, one as bombastic as it is exuberant.

Jens Larsen (Astradamors) and Leigh Melrose (Nekrotzar) © Herwig Prammer
Jens Larsen (Astradamors) and Leigh Melrose (Nekrotzar)
© Herwig Prammer

The plot is fairly straightforward. The action starts in “Golden Breughelland” that “fills all its children with delight” barring one major handicap: that the slick but tyrannical Nekrotzar intends to destroy the world overnight with pillage and plunder. Thought to be a critique of 1960s hedonism, the opera is unrelentingly packed with sexual exploits and innuendos, the libretto filled with kitsch and humour from a mockery of classic poetry through Nekrotzar’s absurd adage “Death is so permanent”!

Musically, events are far more complex. There are clashes of instruments, an ominous-sounding five-note scale and every possible configuration of cacophony: blasts, whirring sounds, flatulence, heartbeats. But the demands on singers are legion; there are passages of prolonged chatter, odd utterances, fragments of inhuman sounds and unpredictable tempi, all alongside athletic acting performances.

As Nekrotzar and with a voice as strong as his acting skills were convincing, British baritone Leigh Melrose stood at the pinnacle of an outstandingly gifted cast. His appearance in one of the opera’s box seats as a glitzy Las Vegas show-master made for terrific staging, as was the “plant” of choir members singing their violent objections to him from all over the house.

Jens Larsen (Astradamors), Leigh Melrose (Nekrotzar) and Alexander Kaimbacher (Piet) © Herwig Prammer
Jens Larsen (Astradamors), Leigh Melrose (Nekrotzar) and Alexander Kaimbacher (Piet)
© Herwig Prammer

The outstanding Austrian tenor Alexander Kaimbacher played a simple, good-willed and loveable Piet the Pot, whose character is pretty much a loser, but who means no harm. Jens Larsen and Sarah Alexandra Hudarew sang husband and wife Astradamors and Mescalina under the most challenging of circumstances: exceptionally, Hudarew – standing in for an indisposed Judith Schmid – sang the role by the wings while Gürbaca mimed it on stage. While not the easiest of solutions, the effort was appreciated, inasmuch as it underscored that “the show must go on.” Astradamors was a bit of a bumbling character, but Larsen’s fine voice shook the house.

Henrik’ Ahr’s panelled, grey-box stage gave back more than it first implied. As Venus, for example, the gifted soprano Eir Inderhaug watched the action from a vintage spaceship that hung high over the stage. Later, in the additional role of Gepopo, she delivered a huge range of shattering sounds from inside a taped-up jute sack. Yet even from within that costume and according to high-speed stage directions, she never once missed a beat. Opposite her, the superbly talented countertenor David Hansen sang Prince Gogo, a fully naïve and isolated royal whose neon-coloured costume (Barbara Drosihn) added to the sensation of obtuse.

David Hansen, Oliver Widmer, Judith Schmid (Mescalina) and Leigh Melrose © Herwig Prammer
David Hansen, Oliver Widmer, Judith Schmid (Mescalina) and Leigh Melrose
© Herwig Prammer

Another imaginative staging idea came in response to Mescalina, the sexually deprived wife, who appeals in Act 2 for a man who’s “well hung”. Her answer came in the form of a 20-foot penis, an enormous pink contraption like a caterpillar’s carapace that was worn and borne across the stage by no fewer than six men. What’s more, Ahr’s ramped stage mirrored disorientation: Nekrotzar’s inebriation is mirrored in the raising and lowering the planks, affecting what felt like a real hangover.

As lesbian lovers in this production, Alina Adamski (Amanda) and Sinéad O’Kelly (as Amando) begin and end the opera with amorous interludes. In the final scene, when Nekrotzar has slept through what should have been the end of the world, the two women also appear among the joyful Breugehlland survivors, who “slide” onto the stage as if it were an ice rink. Which brings us back to Pieter Breughel. The skaters' postures recall those of his 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow; just as here on the Zurich stage, the expert skaters show off, while the beginners struggle with their bottoms protruding. The difference is that here in the opera, the skaters are enjoying themselves after what had been a dance with the devil.

A master of his craft, conductor Tito Ceccherini confidently took the Philharmonia Zürich through two uninterrupted hours of Ligeti’s hellish and high-water sounds. Under Ernst Raffelsberger’s direction, the chorus also deserves special accolades; in this production, its members excelled both as actors and as striking accompaniment from backstage. Nevertheless, don’t see this production if you’re expecting something ordinary. Ordinary, it is not.

****1