If you were in the market for a night of full-immersion weirdness—if, say, you liked the idea of a platinum blonde in an astronaut outfit whispering and singing in dog-whistle range, urgently spitting out gibberish as if it were code—you might not immediately think of the New York Philharmonic. Yet only this venerable orchestra could have produced such a huge, intricate, exhilarating, and wildly psychedelic show as the New York premiere of György Ligeti’s 1978 opera Le Grand Macabre, which is probably too demanding for New York City Opera and too avant-garde for the Met.
The work narrates the end of the world, but the performance opened up a fresh future for the Philharmonic as a hotbed of inspired lunacy, combined with total discipline. Led by its quietly revolutionary new music director Alan Gilbert, the orchestra performed the semi-staged production to a sellout crowd that evidently relished the opera’s flamboyant unconventionality, the insanely high caliber of the performance, and the evidence of a cultural institution that has shed its stodgy past. It was a marvelous night for New York. (Two more sold-out performances take place this weekend.) With the musicians huddled toward the back of the stage, the director and designer Doug Fitch had only the front half to work with. That was enough for an exuberantly ghoulish production to harvest what little sense the libretto doles out. We know this: The inhabitants of Breughelland await the apocalypse without deviating from their habitual sordid silliness. Here a pair of ministers in tails, top hats, and boxing gloves trade exotic insults in alphabetical order; there a milksop astronomer gleefully murders his dominatrix wife; on a screen above the stage, a brainless little sovereign in an oversize crown calmly eats a miniature subject. Fitch embraced the opera’s Grand Guignol aesthetic, even staging some of the action in a pair of puppet theaters fitted out with cameras that projected De Chirico-esque landscapes, sci-fi starscapes, fanged caves, and flaming pits onto an oval screen.
Through it all, Gilbert presided with Buddha-like aplomb over a score that crackled with electrifying complexity. The brass quacked and chattered, agitated choruses hollered from an upper balcony, a tenor stopped to gargle in the middle of a filibustering aria. These motley sounds haven’t been experimental since Gilbert was a child, but it took a great deal of dexterity to emphasize their kaleidoscopic variety and still keep the piece tightly cogent. Fortunately, the orchestra assembled a virtually ideal cast of singers, including Eric Owens as the thunderously lugubrious Nekrotzar, Mark Schowalter as the merry inebriate Piet the Pot, Barbara Hannigan as the hysterically secretive astro-vixen Gepopo, Wilbur Pauley as the goofy Astradamors, and Melissa Parks as his fearsome spouse Mescalina. All of them amplified their own idiosyncrasies and yet collaborated in a meticulous ensemble that Gilbert wove together into a sparkling, refined, and utterly fantastical brocade.
Having taken care of Ligeti’s brand of nihilism, Gilbert has been muttering about plans to administer the same treatment to Olivier Messiaen’s angelic masterpiece Saint-Francois d’Assise. Suddenly, the New York Philharmonic appears to be the most vibrant opera company in town.