If you knew that the end of the world was imminent, that a comet was about to crash into our planet and obliterate it forever, how would you choose to spend your final hours? That’s the question posed by György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, receiving its long-delayed New York premiere under the steady baton of Alan Gilbert and the impeccable New York Philharmonic.
Having raised the issue, Ligeti offers an answer that may seem oddly consoling: people will spend their final moments doing pretty much whatever they have done before. They’ll jockey for power, they’ll revel in stupidity, they’ll engage in posturing, and they’ll get drunk and screw. In his absurdist treatment of our collective foibles, Ligeti manages to make the unthinkable approachable by rendering it comical. It’s a Rabelaisian world where two opposing parties, both completely corrupt, pursue the same crooked policies. And the arrival of the sinister, demagogic Nekrotzar – the Macabre of the title, who’s eerily secure in his faith and hell-bent on destroying the world – sets the whole topsy-turvy carnival in motion. The overture alone – scored for 12 pitched car horns, snippets of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” ragtime, laughter, jazz, and Viennese waltzes – is as good an indication as any that you should buckle up tight; its going to be a bumpy, wild ride.
“The threat of collective death is always present,” Ligeti told Claude Samuel in a broadcast interview, “but we try to eliminate it from our consciousness and to enjoy to the maximum the days that are left to us.” With major earthquakes rumbling, volcanoes spewing, and the Mayan calendar predicting our imminent demise in 2012, this is timely stuff. It reminds us of how precious and fleeting our presence is here on earth – and how much effort we spend fanning the flames of our own fears rather than embracing the mysterious miracle of simply being. And it’s rather baffling that Ligeti’s opera, which premiered in Sweden in 1978 and immediately assumed iconic status in Europe, has never before been performed in New York. (You might not know Ligeti’s name, but you’ve certainly heard his music: Kubrick inserted three of the composer’s composition into 2001: A Space Odyssey – without his permission! – and later did the same in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.) There are just two performances left, tonight and Saturday evening. If you happen to be stuck in town this holiday weekend, you couldn’t be luckier: party like its 2012 and beg, borrow or steal for a ticket