Alan Rich
August 30, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre

Current Status
In Season
Elgar Howarth

We gave it an A

Gyorgy Ligeti (b. 1923) is best known in the U.S. for two brief works that Stanley Kubrick appropriated for the mystical episodes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Europe, the Hungarian-born composer is more widely honored for a versatility that ranges from dense, bristling chamber works to vast dramatic pieces. Le Grand Macabre belongs in the latter category. A setting of Michel de Ghelderode’s theater piece (inspired, in turn, by painter Pieter Brueghel’s horror-drenched The Triumph of Death), Ligeti’s two-hour score bombards listeners with sounds and styles: There’s an opening chorus, for example, with car horns, wild jazz, sour Viennese waltzes, and crashing dissonances that seem spat from the jaws of hell itself. Less a plotted opera than a pastiche of images, Ligeti’s score holds together through its sheer, exhausting energy. British conductor Elgar Howarth, who conducted the premiere of the work in 1978, succeeds handsomely in communicating this energy to his Vienna-based forces. We may all be dead, as one of Ligeti’s characters proclaims, but as this work proves, thrilling contemporary opera is not. A

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