The world ended yesterday. Possibly. It probably didn’t, but the facts are still kind of fuzzy.

György Ligeti’s only opera, Le grand macabre is a strange piece. The story is straightforward enough: Nekrotzar, a Death-like figure, travels around the world of Breughelland warning its citizens of impending doom – a giant comet will destroy Earth at midnight. He gathers various companions as he travels the land; Piet the Pot, a drunk, and Astradamors, the Astronomer Royal. They all travel to the royal palace, the end of the world getting ever closer. But in the end, we don’t know if the world ended or not. The characters sing of the importance of living in the moment and not worrying about death, for “no-one knows when his hour will fall”. But what happened? Did the world end? Were the characters reborn into another world? Or was it all just a farce?

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

The production by Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus is dominated by a giant figure of a woman, named Claudia. We first see her at the beginning of the opera as an actual human in a film, surrounded by empty fast-food cartons, stuck firmly, it would seem, on a path towards her destruction. The frame freezes, and the curtain reveals to show a giant Claudia, stuck in the same, frightened pose as in the film, naked. She is used throughout as both a stage – much of the action takes place directly on her – and as a canvas, with projections transforming her, from a human to a skeleton, to showing destruction and writhing bodies.

This production, perhaps more than anything else, functions as a showcase for Norwegian National Opera’s quite frankly excellent soloist ensemble. Most of the singers, all except Frode Olsen, Eir Inderhaug and David Hansen, were drawn from the house’s own soloists, an impressive feat considering the complexity and sheer difficulty of the score. It shows what talent the house possesses and the high level of singing in Norwegian today. Overall, the singing was surprisingly good, with especially impressive performances from Eir Inderhaug’s Gepopo, Ketil Hugaas’ Nekrotzar, David Hansen’s Prince Go-Go, Thor Inge Falch’s Piet the Pot and Hege Høisæter’s Mescalina.

Ketil Hugaas’ Nekrotzar made an impressive figure with an authoritative, distinct voice, paying great attention to the text. Thor Inge Falch’s Piet the Pot may not have been as vocally accomplished as Hugaas, his wide vibrato obscuring some of the text at times, but he still delivered a very committed performance, and his voice is still extremely well suited to this kind of somewhat dramatic character role. David Hansen’s Prince Go-Go was deliciously flamboyant, his voice suiting the part of the boy-prince wonderfully, and Hege Høisæter’s Mescalina was surprisingly nuanced, ranging from a wicked shrew to a tragic heroine of almost Monteverdian proportions. Eir Inderhaug’s Gepopo was perhaps the most virtuosic performance of the show, her Scene 3 showpiece a true tour de force for coloratura soprano. Her distinct tone suited the manic character, and her performance was made even more impressive by her very physical acting, running around, jumping up on tables, and even being carried off stage, all while singing.

Le grand macabre is a weird piece, quite unlike most other operas. It is unashamedly vulgar, both in the language of its characters (I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “dick” uttered so many times in the space of two-and-a-half hours before) and in their actions. The humour is crude and often childish. Long gone are the days of swooning heroines dying from consumption at the top of their lungs. Gone are the Parisian salons and ancient temples. Instead, we have commedia dell’arte archetypes turned on their heads and inside out, all set in a desolate land on the brink of destruction.

And yet, La Fura dels Baus manage to make it into more than that. By incorporating the character of Claudia, a giant, six-metre-tall woman, they make it about us. Breughelland isn’t some faraway place that exists only in Ligeti’s opera; Brueghelland is us. Literally. The impending destruction is the destruction of Claudia – the destruction of us, of our society. We first see her projected onto a screen surrounded by empty pizza cartons, half-eaten hamburgers and beer cans, and later crawling on the floor clutching her chest – merely heartburn or a heart attack? – is it her destruction we are seeing? And when we see her the final time, she may not have been destroyed, but just like the characters and the world in the opera proper, a transformation has taken place.

Norwegian National Opera’s production of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre is first and foremost a testament to the very high artistic level both of the orchestra, conducted by John Helmer Fiore, and of the soloist ensemble, all delivering committed, well-played and -sung, exciting performances. The world might not have ended, but with such a compelling production with such good performances, I almost wouldn’t have minded if it had done.

*****