Ligeti Le Grand Macabre, English National Opera, London Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture

Meet Claudia – a woman on the edge. The end of the world is nigh. So much junk food, so little time.

For Le Big Mac read Le Grand Macabre. Claudia is about to have a particularly alarming out-of-body experience. A whole lot of woman is about to get a whole lot more. Put it this way: if Claudia were able to stand up her head would go through the roof of the London Coliseum.

So begins this extraordinary staging – by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco of the Catalan “total theatre” company La Fura dels Baus – of György Ligeti’s only opera. Claudia is designer Alfons Flores’ creation and she fills the Coliseum stage revolving through 360 degrees to reveal every unflattering aspect of her physiognomy. They say no man is an island, but this woman is. Or to be more precise, she is Breughelland, a paranoid and morally corrupt police state run by a sexually indeterminate Prince sporting a very high voice and lurex tunic (the excellent Andrew Watts). And when a mysterious visitor Nekrotzar (Pavlo Hunka) arrives to announce that the game will be up at precisely midnight, Claudia’s body becomes a repository for the entire world’s fear and loathing.

Allé and Carrasco’s production literally spills from her every orifice. At one point the black and white ministers (or should that be minstrels) of Breughelland (Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss) emerge, appropriately enough, from her rear end to engage in a slanging match of A-Z obscenities. Claudia’s bowels (groaning under the weight of all that bingeing) are massaged by black-gloved hands before the Chief of Secret Police, Gepopo (the manic coloratura soprano of Susanna Andersson) explodes from within smelling subversion and foul play. Or is that simply smelling foul. Claudia’s worst nightmare, and ours, is an Hieronymous Bosch-like landscape of degradation and delight on which startling video projections (Franc Aleu) cast images of hellfire and decay. Claudia’s fleshly form dissolves into a skeleton before our eyes. Amazing.

But what’s it all for? On what level can we now engage with La Grand Macabre? Back in the 1980s it was an audacious and exceedingly smelly fart in the general direction of Opera. “Anti-Anti Opera”, Ligeti called it, and so it is – vocal conventions grotesquely distorted against an all snorting, all growling orchestra (brilliant under Baldur Bronnimann). Where else will you find a Monteverdian cacophony of motor horns?

But I’ve a sneaky feeling it was a one-time-only conceit, a cartoon stamped with a very short sell-by date. When the real Claudia finally makes it to the loo at the close she’s flushing away more than just her dinner. Toilet humour? That’s about the size of it.