La Grand Macabre

Le Grand Macabre at the English National Opera is a mind-blowing ode to decadence.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey
Ever imagined what a Bosch painting would look like come to life? The latest production at the English National Opera of Le Grand Macabre is pretty close. The music is pretty tough going unless you have a hard on for late 70s experimental classical music. It is by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who’s music was featured in Kubrick’s 2001The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Sadly this doesn’t sound quite as good as those film works but the piece is still worth seeing for the visuals. The set design, film projection work and art direction is so awesome that you’ll forget your ears.

The story is about the angel of death who decides to destroy the whole of humanity in Breghelland. He crawls out of the mouth of a giant naked lady sprawled on stage – past a couple of anatomical models looking for somewhere to shag and into a drunken Dutchmann called Piet. The opera follows the rather simply story of chaos and destruction in a warped version of Belgium. After the world falls apart, there’s a hilariously dated postscript saying don’t worry – we’ll all die, but let's drink, shag and be merry in the meantime.

The opera plays with ideas about physical disintegration, environmental catastrophe, nuclear world war and greed. The giant body on stage is constantly in flux – the eyes glow, the head spins like something from The Exorcist, the nipples come off, things crawl out of its mouth... a whole act takes place with character coming out of its arse. It’s a super hyperbolic gothic monster and an amazing canvas for projections – at one point, it looks as if it has fallen away and has turned to a moving giant’s skeleton. At other points, it resembles a super-sized Tony Oursler sculpture. As a viewer you can’t wait to see what it does next. It may be opera, but it is also one of the most stunning visual artworks you’ll see this year.

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