György Ligeti’s “anti anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre

Wildest dreamland

It’s the perfect medium for the End Times, unequalled in its devotion to doom

On Opera

Is this opera’s big moment? Now that internet porn in its new-ethical low-definition has lost its magic, and there’s nothing to do but rewatch classic episodes of Countdown and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, how better to fill the void than by mainlining free relays from the world’s opera houses? The ever-lengthening menu can be sampled at theoperacritic.com: suddenly opera has come flouncing out of its velveted boudoirs attired as the most democratic art form ever dreamed of.

Yet do I sense you quail, dear reader, the idea of some supersize soprano looming out of your laptop seeming, even now, a step too far? But fear not! The filming of opera is a slick business: no more close-ups like falling down the maw of a yawning hippo. These days shows are often staged with an eye to the DVD, and many work better on screen than stage: it’s all sophisticated theatre, top-tab design, and svelte, attractive singers tastefully shot to spare you too much of their exertions (or uvulas).

And one of the many things that nobody knows about opera is that it is the place where theatre gets to live its wildest dreams: no other art is so fabulously minted, or possesses texts spacious enough for directors and designers to set their fantasy loose, unhobbled by lower-middle-class idiocies of “naturalism” and so on. The surprise is not that much of it is masturbatory nonsense — what do you expect from theatre directors off the leash? — but that so much is astonishingly good.

And opera is the perfect medium for the End Times, unequalled in its devotion to doom. Its pessimism is a relief from the moronism of Hollywood and happy endings, the capitalist fantasy that everything will turn out OK: opera is a universe knitted out of the same death cult as Jacobean revenge drama.

Equally, long before Albert Camus, it reached the conclusion that life, however ghastly, must be lived: suicide is off-limits (with an exemption for those occasions when A Fate Worse Than Death impends). The issue, then, is how to live in a world prone to the visitation of evil and bursting with scary Iago-type characters operating outside the standard norms of motivation.

Horror is frozen in arresting images: a frazzled loon sobbing in a clown suit, about to commit double murder (Pagliacci); an ever-diminishing quantity of nuns queuing up for the guillotine, singing Salve Regina (Dialogues of the Carmelites); a hobo in the blasted wilderness who wails “Weep, wretched people, weep! Night is falling, the foe approaches” (Boris Godunov). And opera’s death-wish is vividly expressed through characters like Carmen, obsessively laying out the cards and reading death in them (though tbh she’s a gloomy gal who would spot death in a hand of Animal Snap).

How to deal with this distress which humans live and breathe? The traditional reaction is to try manfully to increase it, fetishising babyish codes of honour, blood, pride, religion. No, our fate is not in our stars: opera overflows with characters whose destruction flows from rules of behaviour evidently cooked up during a drunken bet between halfwits. This is basically the premise of Verdi’s unsurpassably black Il trovatore, an opera whose shredded personnel might genuinely wish the light at the end of the tunnel were an oncoming train. Nineteenth-century Italian works like Verdi’s, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda or Puccini’s Tosca are nihilistically devoted to the notion that however appalling things seem right now, that’s as good as they’re ever going to get. Yet this also provides the chance to write scarifying plaints like Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” — and it’s here that opera throws its particular wares into the other pan of the scales.

Because at these moments music can incarnate a humanity that is these benighted characters’ only weapon against the circling darkness. Opera of earlier centuries, with a more nuanced view of the world’s malevolence, suggests others, too: Handel’s Radamisto, a three-hour study in human suffering, embodies and adds comfort, love, sympathy and forgiveness to the armoury. Music can describe loneliness and despair with painful lucidity, but also provides the antidote.

And opera’s sturdy humanism — to wit, don’t be wasting your time looking for help from the sky — also contains a bubbling optimism, a cheerleader for pepping up the old vale of tears by loving, drinking, laughing in the face of forces of evil you can’t do much about. The model text for this is György Ligeti’s “anti anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre (right), premiered in 1978, an exhilarating piece of absurdist surrealism.

Death comes a-calling on Breughelland in the person of one Nekrotzar, announcing the end of days. The locals, busy with more important stuff, correctly ignore him and carry on drinking and shagging. Eventually, fatuous Nekrotzar also gets hammered, and everyone is too off their faces to notice whether the meteor-related apocalypse has actually taken place. Staggering out into the wasteland, they pronounce the work’s perky moral: “Fear not to die, good people! Live merrily in cheerfulness!”

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