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Death at the Doorbell

The world, as we know it, ended in May.

At least that was the proposition of the New York Philharmonic. Building toward the end of his first year as the orchestra’s new music director, Alan Gilbert envisioned a spectacular presentation: a fully staged New York premiere of “Le Grand Macabre” (French slang for “the Grim Reaper”) by the great Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

If New York is the cultural capital of the United States, why has it taken so long for this wildly creative, mordant opera to be mounted here? Written by Ligeti, a Holocaust survivor, between 1974 and 1977, and revised in 1996, it is the most-frequently performed and rapturously well-received opera of the past half-century in Europe.

Ligeti died in 2006, without this major work being performed in New York. This surprising lapse created an opportunity that Alan Gilbert seized upon to define his directorship. It was a huge gamble, and he won big.

Ligeti’s music has been something of a good-luck charm for Gilbert. In 2007, as guest conductor, he led the orchestra with soloist Christian Tetzlaff in Ligeti’s violin concerto, a haunting and haunted work about loss, memory and forgetting. The performances were almost universally recalled by critics and audiences as among the most notable of the year. That response was responsible in no small measure for the youthful Gilbert’s subsequent selection to succeed Lorin Maazel, which was greeted as a potential breath of fresh air.

Ligeti himself was a breath of fresh air in the world of contemporary music. He grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family, with noted violinist Leopold Auer as a great-uncle.

As a teenager, Ligeti survived a Nazi onslaught near the end of World War II in the Jewish slave labor battalion in Szeged, Hungary. He fled 10 months later. Ligeti hid until the end of the war. He and his mother were the only two of his immediate family who were not murdered by the Nazis.

After the war, he had to cope with the stultifying, repressive Communist

government before escaping Hungary in the uprising of 1956. This hard-earned sense of the fragility of life and the choices people make in extreme situations deeply inform this opera.

A very different, early childhood memory helped form his deeply rooted sense of absurdity — even in the gravest situations. As a little boy in Hungary, he was stunned one day to discover strange policemen shouting at everyone in what to him sounded like complete gibberish. He later learned his village of Cluj had been taken over by Romania, and the policemen were screaming in Romanian — his first awareness of the existence of different languages.

In “Le Grand Macabre,” the bravura coloratura nonsensical ravings of Gepopo, chief of the secret police, surely derive from this early memory — that, crossed with Mozart’s Queen of the Night on amphetamines, and with a pistol. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan brought down the house in this role.

With barely a plot other than the burial plot upon whose edge “Le Grand Macabre” is set, the opera hovers provocatively and whimsically between life and death. Nekrotzar, the powerful bass Eric Owens, claims to be the Grim Reaper and announces the world will end, and everyone will die that night. (The libretto was “freely adapted” by the composer and Michael Meschke from Belgian absurdist playwright Michel de Ghelderode’s “La Balade du Grand Macabre.”)

Ligeti had wanted to compose an opera on “Alice in Wonderland” and instead created this “Alice in Breugelland” — inspired also by Hieronymus Bosch and New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg. As with Lewis Carroll’s book, nothing in this opera makes literal sense, yet everything is recognizable.

From the opening prelude — a palindrome for 12 imprecisely pitched car horns — the audience is alerted that this will not be your usual kind of score.

(The New York Times reviewer mistakenly asserted Ligeti had determined the pitches. He deliberately demanded only relative pitches, creating a roughness that is critical to the music’s meaning and purpose.)

This prelude and the subsequent prelude for doorbells are as bold an opening musical statement as Claudio Monteverdi’s famous prelude to his 1607 “Orfeo,” which announced not only the birth of opera, but also the triumphant arrival of triadic harmony.

To call Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” eclectic is to state the obvious and to mislead. As a composer, Ligeti was supremely aware of music history, and the score is no simple patchwork of ideas. The brilliance of his contrarian imagination was matched by a respect for tradition. His myriad references to multiple musical traditions are reworked to create something new and individual.

Ligeti forged a highly individual avant-garde path while thumbing his nose at the more dour modernist schools of the 20th century. With this opera, he arrived at a near-miraculous

fractured vision of tonality made anew. Creatively, he always made his works into breathtaking high-wire acts of artistic chance-taking.

The composer, having seen some of the worst that life had to offer, wanted this work to express the same life-affirming thought as Rabbi Nachman of Breslau: “This world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid.” Or, in the more light-hearted formulation of the opera’s great final passacaglia, “Fear not to die, good people all… when it comes, then let it be… Farewell, till then in cheerfulness!”

The demands Ligeti makes of performers is legendary, and this production had superb young singers: mellow tenor Michael Schowalter as Piet the Pot (continually drunk, a lark for this sure-voiced singer), soprano Jennifer Black and mezzo Renée Tatum as the entwined lovers, the clarion countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the soprano role of Prince Go-Go, and the usually commanding Wilbur Pauley as the masochistic Royal Astronomer gleefully submitting to his dominatrix wife, the dramatic mezzo Melissa Parks. Tenor Peter Tantsits and baritone Joshua Bloom bounced around the stage as the continuously tussling White and Black Ministers. And high soprano Kiera Duffy sang the luxuriant part of dream-Venus — on stilts.

My only reservations about this production concerned the nonmusic contributions: most critically an unfortunate, repeated tendency of the visual elements to go for the “cute” instead of the acute outrageousness and peculiar admixture of terror and comedy intended by the score’s (frequently disregarded) stage directions. Images, though sometimes striking, seemed simplistically illustrative, with little of the layered wit of the music. The absence of that sense of terror and edginess was responsible for the few longueurs in the performance.

However, despite these cavils, this production by director and designer Doug Fitch’s company, Giants Are Small, definitively proved opera can, indeed, be “staged” dramatically in a concert hall.

I’d have to go back to 1966, to the famous Larry Rivers production of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” to recall a similarly transformative use of Avery Fisher Hall.

However, the 1966 Stravinsky production was confined to the stage. Ligeti’s score for “Le Grand Macabre” specifies wide-ranging use of the performance space, and this production obliged with actors, musicians and singers roaming the stage, aisles and balconies, mixed with high-tech projections of low-tech “live animation,” and flashing lights.

Since breaking spatial boundaries is critical to its conception, this opera is not one to listen to on recordings. It can be fully experienced only live and in person.

In this financially chastened age, perhaps the most miraculous thing about this long-awaited major Ligeti premiere is that Gilbert claims producer Edouard Getaz helped him put together “Le Grand Macabre” for the same limited cost as for the performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” to close his first season at the end of June.

If true, it seems the world as we have known it has, indeed, ended. And something new and wonderful is beginning.

Raphael Mostel is a regular contributor to the Forward. His “Night and Dawn” for brass and shofars, will be released on CD in September

Watch the New York Philharmonic’s trailer for “Le Grand Macabre” below:

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