New York Philharmonic
Dillon, Patrick, Opera Canada
As the rousing climax of his first year as music director, Alan Gilbert scored for his New York Philharmonic a coup that surely was the envy of at least two Lincoln Center neighbors: the most loudly acclaimed premiere of New York City's 2009/10 operatic season. Since its first performance, in Stockholm in 1978, Gyorgy Ligeti's Le grand macabre has made an impressively grand tour of the world's opera houses, but this was only its second American production--and it didn't happen in an opera house at all but in Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic's much-unloved, acoustically tricky home base. Director Doug Fitch extended the stage to create a front-of-the-orchestra playing area that accommodated not just the singers but the very visible manipulators of the production's central, live-action animation, projected onto a large eye of a screen suspended upstage center. There, images grotesque and droll commented on or implemented the action, with, occasionally, a singer's giant head popping up to keep disembodied watch over the onstage goings-on. Clad in Catherine Zuber's elaborately fanciful costumes, the cast roamed up and down the aisles, shooting guns and handing out postcards warning the audience that doomsday is just around the corner. The black-clad chorus (the excellent New York Choral Artists) traveled from stage to balcony and back, and a battery of brash brass and pounding percussion was deployed at the house's rear. It made for a splendid, 360-degree eye-and-earful, and at evening's end the audience rose to its collective feet and gave the hard-working (but obviously happy) performers their own roaring earful of approval.
As for Le grand macabre itself, it certainly merits such attention; whether it's a great opera is another matter altogether. With his wild extremes of timbre, range, and dynamics, Ligeti created an arrestingly apt sound world for the libretto's Ghel-derode-inspired grotesquerie, in which Death's determination to end the world at midnight is thwarted by a "life force" amassing the powers of sex, alcohol, gluttony, and political chicanery. …