With sub-Ionesco doggerel for a libretto, a patchy score and a disjointed plot, it takes deft stage direction for farce and satire to blend credibly in Le grand macabre, Ligeti’s 1977 operatic spoof on doom-laden prophesizing. It’s hard to say whether this production for the Neue Oper Wien, directed by Carlos Wagner, genuinely did that, at least judged against the lurid anti-materialist theatricality of the La Fura dels Baus co-production put on at ENO in 2009, and yet one image left purposefully unaccounted for amid the slapstick focused attention for the evening.

© Armin Bardel
© Armin Bardel

Andrea Cozzi’s post-apocalyptic junkyard of a set was as recognizable a production of this opera as they come: flanked on either side by a bloodstained getaway car crashed into a maypole and rusted shipping containers housing the opera’s minor characters, the barren stage was elsewhere littered with scrap metal, miscellaneous animal debris, and bare trees recalling the meeting point where Vladimir and Estragon lurk ad infinitum in Waiting for Godot. Children emerge from behind the wreckage when the opera’s culminating prediction of fatal calamity proves false, though the renewal imagery comes laced with cynicism: infant-sized flowing cream robes replace the black suits worn by the chorus members (who actually do die in a slow-motion Tarantino-style bloodbath), colours worn by the caricatured politicians who dominate the first scene of the second act so dysfunctionally. It is also a child trapeze artist – quite how the company got this past health and safety is a mystery – who represents the spider which Mescalina, a figure sucked into Nekrotzar’s (or Death’s) orbit, summons to test her husband, the court astronomer of Breughelland (the freakish fantasy realm in which the opera is set).

Nekrotzar himself initially appears dressed in the same business suit the chorus wear later, with all the implications that involves, though he is slowly disrobed throughout the first act – quite at whose insistence, an ambiguous matter – and makes his grand second-act entrance in flamboyant Mayan headdress. Much is made in the programme booklet of the cataclysmic events forecast, according to the Mayan calendar, for 21 December of this year, in an essay which cites the Dresden Codex, the 2009 disaster film 2012, and an academic debunking of the date as a cyclical change of calendar. Nothing however is written about the handcar on which Nekrotzar appears, or the centre-stage train tracks which unmistakably reference one of the most iconic images of the Holocaust, with the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate of death recast as a rainbow. A director might very well be considered brave or stupid to insert such a potent symbol of mass extermination into an opera which parodies human destruction, but it doesn’t transgress, provoke, unsettle, or appear in poor taste. The blocking is carefully organized so that the more oblivious the characters seem to the imagery – Gepopo, Breughelland’s chief of secret police, squeaks out her coloratura code as she repeatedly crosses the tracks in a mobility scooter – the more our attention is drawn to it. It is at once deliberately placed and inert; starkly concrete and yet resistant to explanation.

Le grand macabre has been played with more polish and finesse, but occasionally erratic ensemble and rough phrasing from the amadeus ensemble-wien seemed in keeping with the stridency of the score (the Wiener Kammerchor’s singing, by contrast, was far smoother), and conductor Walter Kobéra brought clarity and direction to Ligeti’s roundabout writing. For the opening car horn fanfare to sound quite so cacophonous and shambolic demolished any chance of it being heard as a parody of the toccata which begins L’Orfeo, though the closing passacaglia came by way of Hindemith and as such worked well; elsewhere the score’s myriad of musical references seemed muted but not unduly neglected.

Spotty casting proved the evening’s main weakness. As Nekrotzar, Martin Achrainer had much grotesque gurning to offer but little in the way of tone, sounding mostly faint and hoarse in a role where a certain amount of shouty Sprechstimme might have compensated for lack of vocal strength. Arno Raunig’s countertenor was similarly underpowered and as Prince Go-Go he struggled to cut through the orchestra, while Brian Galliford had no falsetto range to rely on in a part (Piet the Pot) that requires much singing above the break; lower down his voice sounded strangely gravelly for a character tenor. As Mescalina and Astradamors, Annette Schönmüller and Nicholas Isherwood handled Ligeti’s cruel melismas capably, Schönmüller with a little more flair than Isherwood. Júlia Bányai and Anna Manske blended well as the duetting lovers Amanda and Amando, with pure tone and good legato, but failed to make anything interesting of their lyrical phrases.

In quite a different league to any of the other singers was Jennifer Yoon’s show-stealing Gepopo: with vibrant timbre, full of colours, and a dazzling coloratura extension, she seemed the ideal candidate to spell an end to the Vienna State Opera’s recent Zerbinetta and Queen of the Night problems.