This year at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, we had the privilege to perform a chamber version of three arias from Györgi Ligeti’s le Grande Macabre. These three arias are written for the high soprano who plays the police chief Gepopo. The soloist was the (truly) incomparable Barbara Hannigan, who describes the scene as follows:
“The character Gepopo, the chief of the secret police of Brueghelland, approaches Prince Go-Go to warn him and the people of Brueghelland that intelligence has learned of a huge comet heading through space towards them which will destroy their planet. Unfortunately, Gepopo is paralyzed with fear and paranoid hysteria, so his almost unintelligible, coded warning is not easily understood by Prince Go- Go, who, mainly interested in a hearty meal, drives Gepopo to further convulsions of highflying vocal panic as the piece draws to a anxiety-ridden finale. The chamber orchestra mimics and grotesquely accompanies the soloist, with cock-crows from the contrabassoon, a sinister trombone solo, police and slide-whistles, whispered vocal sounds and a countdown screamed out by the players as Gepopo cries out desperately for help.”
This set of arias can also be played by on the trumpet, as they were by the Norwegian Hakan Hardenberger, who filled in on short notice for a soprano who fell ill. The orchestra part is here given as a (very full!) piano reduction.
It is impossible in a short space to describe the mass of action and absurdity of Ligeti’s whole opera. We will say only that it ends with a procession that includes a scordatura violin (see Mahler: 4th Symphony, concert of Sept. 11), the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Eroica (concert of Sept. 14), and something like the end of the world.