Le Grand Macabre, Coliseum, London
The Rake's Progress, Peacock Theatre, London
Sing to the hand, the face is decomposing: An accommodating giantess steals the show in this triumphant production of Ligeti's surrealist farce
It starts with a burger, a pizza and several cans of beer. As György Ligeti's choir of car horns boxes our ears, mimicking and mocking the opening of a much older kind of opera, Claudia, the super-sized, fibreglass star of La Fura dels Baus's production of Le Grand Macabre, watches the news in her vest and knickers, guzzling the grease-glutted products of several well-known fast-food outlets.
On the television screen, rioters fill the streets. In the newspaper, a headline screams "Crisis!" Somewhere inside Claudia there's another crisis: a knot of pain so severe that she falls to the floor on her hands and knees. Is it a heart-attack? An embolism? Indigestion? Or simply the result of housing two pairs of lovers, a petulant Prince, an indigent drunk, a brace of bickering politicians, a dozen soldiers, three animatronic chickens, a nightclub and an ossuary in one female body?
Co-produced by English National Opera, La Monnaie, Brussels, Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, and Teatro dell' Opera, Rome, Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco's Le Grand Macabre is a spectacular of the grotesque: a bawdy, flatulent cousin to Hervieu and Montalvo's exquisite production of Les Palladins. First seen on video, then frozen in fibreglass by designers Alfons Flores and Franc Aleu, Claudia is transformed into a vessel of horrors and delights: her eye-sockets windows for the mutually besotted Amando and Amanda (Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone), her flank a BDSM battlefield for Mescalina and Astradamors (Susan Bickley and Frode Olsen), her armpit the rank hiding place for Piet the Pot (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke). Her thigh is a crude kitchen, her nipples riot-shields, her belly a disco where drunken soldiers pace out the dance routine from Michael Jackson's "Thriller", her arse a debating chamber for the tax-happy Black and White Ministers (Simon Butteriss and Daniel Norman), her open mouth the lair of Death, or Nekrotzar (Pavlo Hunka).
Bathed in starlight, licked by hellfire, caressed by a lover's hands, tattooed with the lost souls of Bosch and Brueghel, scanned and X-rayed to a skeleton, the mute giantess gapes helplessly; her features morphing into the mottled passivity of a Lucian Freud subject, the defensive grimace of Lynndie England, the bewildered cross-hatching of old age, and, with the (silent) flush of the lavatory that accompanies the last bars of this 1978 "anti-anti-opera", the soap-and-water prettiness of a Dove model.
One wonders what Ligeti would have made of the lavatory motif. Not much, I'd imagine. But it seems an apposite ending for a comedy that despite its many moments of audacious beauty – plundered from baroque and classical sources or painted in the frigid astral clusters of the composer's own style – is nihilistic, crude, even disposable. The enraptured suspensions of Amando and Amanda's duets, as ornately erotic as the intimacies of Monteverdi, will cede to boredom and irritation one day. Politicians are interchangeable, the monarchy (Andrew Watts's magnificent Prince Go-Go) spoiled and spineless, the military paranoid (Susanna Andersson's Gepopo), Venus capricious (Andersson again), the populace, as personified by Piet, Mescalina and Astradamors, superstitious and sensation-hungry, Nekrotzar a cartoon.
We're all going to die. So laugh while you can, marvel at the doorbells and speeding xylophones of a gargantuan percussion section, quake at the festering seams of scatological brass, swoon to the glacial delicacy of the passacaglias, and try not to be too bored by the A-Z of competitive insults. Under Baldur Brönnimann, ENO's orchestra realise the score with vivacity and discipline, while Watts, Andersson, Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Bourne and Bottone make the absurdities, exaggerations, uglinesses and angularities of Ligeti's vocal writing sparkle. A production like this only comes along once a decade. Forget the whingeing about English repertoire for English companies. This polyglot extravaganza is a triumph.
British Youth Opera's annual budget would barely run to one of La Fura dels Baus's Lycra bodysuits, yet William Kerley's modern-dress production of The Rake's Progress packed a well-honed punch. Nicky Spence's Tom was a Rake you might see on any suburban train from Charing Cross: sweaty in his too-tight Top Man shirt, cocky, unremarkable, a junior sales rep or IT support worker whose only sin is to dream of unearned wealth. Seduced by Derek Welton's Nick Shadow (a study of quiet, pitiless cruelty), he throws himself into an MTV dream of stretch limos and zipless sex. Slovenly and charmless, his look of anguish when he rejects sweet, homely Anne (Rhona McKail) was more powerful for the loutish behaviour that preceded it.
Though BYO's whores moved like school prefects, this was a lively, well-sung show, full of musicality and appreciation for the literary conceits of Auden's libretto. As Baba, Lilly Papaioannou had glamour and great comic timing, while Paul Curievici was a witty Sellem. As for Nicky Spence, a Tom with this much flair and energy would be a find for any professional company. In the pit there was smart work from the Southbank Sinfonia under Peter Robinson, though the use of a keyboard in place of a harpsichord struck me as one economy too far.
'Le Grand Macabre' : to 9 Oct (0871-911 0200)
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