“Well, I realise it's not exactly Mozart,” I heard behind me as I settled into my seat for Le Grand Macabre, before the man professed to his companion that he was up for trying out anything. It’s just as well, because if there’s one thing you can be sure of in György Ligeti’s surrealist opera, it’s that you have no idea what the composer is about to throw at you next. But any work that can start with a fanfare of tuned motor horns and get away with it gets my vote. Clearly, it also gets the votes of Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section, all of whom wore broad grins throughout.

Pavlo Hunka (the Nekrotzar) and Peter Hoare (Piet the Pot) © John Phillips | Getty Images
Pavlo Hunka (the Nekrotzar) and Peter Hoare (Piet the Pot)
© John Phillips | Getty Images

Le Grand Macabre’s premise is that Death (under the name of the “Nekrotzar”) arrives on Earth to announce the end of the world. On arrival, he meets a collection of stock characters, each with their own way of dealing with the situation: the permanently sozzled Piet the Pot, whom Death recruits to become his unlikely assistant, favours drinking his way through the remaining hours; his drinking companion Astrodamors is glad to be rid of his nymphomaniac wife Mescalina; the lovers Amando and Amanda are perfectly happy with a grave as long as it contains both of them and leaves their lovemaking uninterrupted. The list extends in Act II to the not-very-tyrannical Prince Go-Go, his scheming ministers, and more.

Peter Tantsits (White Minister), Joshua Bloom (Black Minister), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Prince Go-Go) © John Phillips | Getty Images
Peter Tantsits (White Minister), Joshua Bloom (Black Minister), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Prince Go-Go)
© John Phillips | Getty Images

I can't think of an opera score with more variety. In between the fanfares for motor horns or doorbells, the big film-music-like orchestral tutti and huge choral ensembles, by way of dozens of other instrument combinations, Ligeti throws in passages of lyrical string and choral writing that are utterly sublime. There are more percussion effects than you can (forgive me) shake a stick at – from the relatively conventional drums, marimba and tam tams to the wind machine and the tearing up of newspapers. Rattle and the LSO handled all of this with panache: the comic parts were delivered with verve, the climaxes with energy and I don’t know that any other orchestra could deliver a more stunningly shimmering string sound. Simon Halsey (usually on-stage) directed the London Symphony Chorus (usually off-stage amongst the audience) with energy through the multifarious vocal gymnastics demanded of them.

For the soloists, this is an opera more focused on character than on conventional operatic fireworks: suffice to say that the singers of all nine of the main roles threw themselves into their parts, most notably the splendidly bibulous Peter Hoare as Piet and Pavlo Hunka as a rather urbane Nekrotzar. Vocal beauty was turned on when needed: notable were Ronnita Miller and Eliizabeth Watts as Amando and Amanda, as well as Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Go-Go.

Simon Halsey © John Phillips | Getty Images
Simon Halsey
© John Phillips | Getty Images

The concept of Peter Sellars’ semi-staging was straightforward: the end of the world is going to happen via a nuclear holocaust. Nuclear waste drums were spread through the orchestra, there was much protective lab clothing, a large video screen displayed fields in the shadow of a nuclear plant, alternating with more abstract images and with a time-lapse animation of the numbers of nuclear explosions through the progress of the Cold War. There was plenty of humour; there were several fun tricks of stagecraft. However, for an opera set in “Breughelland” and so full of rich variety, I couldn’t suppress a feeling of missed opportunity: it seems almost contrary to focus a staging of this work so tightly on a single point.

Not everything turns out the way you expect: Death misses his appointment on the stroke of midnight because he is lying in a drunken stupor with Piet and Astrodamus; at the end of the opera, several of the characters are unsure as to whether they’re dead or not. But the greatest magic of Le Grand Macabre is that for all the madcap farce, Ligeti is being deadly serious: amidst all this craziness, his music makes you confront love, tyranny, sex, escape, death. Le Grand Macabre may not “be exactly Mozart”, but it shares his gift for touching the sublime.