Review by Guy LIVINGSTON
Gyorgi Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre: Not nearly as surrealistic as the program book and the promotional publicity led one to expect. The truth is, that it is a positively logical and normal opera compared to such lunacy as the Nose, or even some of the mystical fantasies of Wagners Ring. The plot is this: Necrotzar rises from the dead to announce the end of the world. Amando and Amanda are in love and looking for peace and quiet. They hide out in his now-vacant grave. Piet vom Fass (the winemaker and drinker) becomes Necrotzars sidekick, and they set off to announce the end of the world. During a wonderful aria which cant help reminding one of the p-p-p-p, p-p-p-p, pa! of Papageno in the Magic Flute, the chief of the secret police informs the duke that a comet is on the way that will destroy the world. After some time, the comet actually does arrive, in a musical anticlimax, and everybody dies. They all end up in heaven (or hell?) with the same worries and problems as before. But Amando and Amanda are still happy, and find that love endures even through death.
The operas strangeness lies in the details, the localized bits of lunacy and black-humored non-sequitur that pervade the text from start to finish. Ligeti treats the text more as a poet experimenting with onomatopoeia and alliteration than as a composer of melodies. Yet he is such a skilled and consummate craftsman that the German words came through clearly despite intensely virtuosic contemporary writing, complicated passages, and relentless acting demands on the singers. The result was surprisingly close to the French-German school of MusikTheater that is currently the hallmark of Aperghis and Goebbels (see our interview). Surprising, that is, until we looked in the program book and discovered that all the directors and designers are veterans of the Nanterre theater in Paris. Their realization of the production was sparse, almost minimalist, but nonetheless powerful. And a certain reticence pervaded the production: while the music was wont to let loose at unexpected moments, and the actors were deliriously comic at times, the set was held back, not attempting to éclater or astound the senses. Altogether this is a beautiful production, and shows off the combined Asko and Schönberg ensembles to great effect.
The sequence of concerts (Songs 98) of which this formed a part was woefully under-advertised (perhaps intentionally so, given the "intimate" size of the Amandiers Planetarium where they took place), and only thirty or so people turned up to see this fine young trio perform the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen with great virtuosity and élan. European Wind is Gillian Lampater (flute and piccolo), Barre Bouman (clarinet and basset horn) and Achim Gorsch (trumpet). Their programme consisted of "In Freundschaft" (1977) for flute, "Mission" and "Himmelfahrt" (1978) for trumpet and basset horn, and a trio version of the eternally adaptable "Tierkreis" (1975/1983), in which trumpeter Gorsch doubled on piano. Additional klangregie was provided by Markus Aust, who was responsible for the spatial distribution of the sound in "Himmelfahrt" (after working with and receiving the composer's seal of approval). Apart from designer Anja Roemer's fairy-tale costume for Barre Bouman to wear in "Mission/Himmelfahrt", the lighting and stage business were kept to a strict minimum, allowing these delicate and (for those of you who don't know Stockhausen's post 1975 work) openly melodic works to breathe.
I suppose a rigid purist might complain that the flirtatious stage antics of "Mission" and "Himmelfahrt", where trumpet and basset horn stalk each other like two cats in heat in a hissing courtship dance, violate the strict conditions of Germanic "absolute music". However, since the composer revealed in 1977 that he was in fact a visitor from the planet Sirius, I suppose we can allow him a little playful poetic licence. Flippancy aside, the staging aided the music's internal theatricality; had these works been played in the old-fashioned way, musicians seated behind stands, eyes glued to parts, they would have undoubtedly lost their not inconsiderable charm. In his post-Mantra maturity (one hesitates to use the words "old age" to describe a seventy year old who is still obviously extremely active), Stockhausen has become much more of a "note man". The melodies (twelve, one for each sign of the zodiac) of Tierkreis are distinctly singable, and the arrangement for trio-though lacking the childlike fascination of the music boxes for which Stockhausen originally wrote them, as part of 1975's "Musik im Bauch"-brings out their idiosyncratic nuances and diaphonous counterpoint admirably. Each melody is heard three or four times in different arrangements, showcasing both the intricate details of the polyphony but also the personality of the individual instruments themselves.
Seeing Achim Gorsch prowling onto the stage complete with Markus Stockhausen belt (loose-fitting leather belt allowing the trumpeter to carry an assortment of mutes), it was no surprise to learn that the two trumpeters have worked together in the "Michaelstrompeter" ensemble. Flutist and fellow German Gillian Lampater has also worked with Stockhausen père et fils, while Dutch clarinettist Barre Bouman plays in the Ensemble Asko, and has also participated in Gilius van Bergeijk's revival of Misha Mengelberg's spectacular double wind quintet, "Hello! Windyboys". One can only hope that a recording of the works played here may become available (presumably through the Stockhausen Verlag), and that this fine group will come back soon and play to the bigger houses they so richly deserve.