“Opera in the concert hall: total music or total theater? Why not both?” exulted the New York Times when Alan Gilbert conducted the New York premiere of Le Grand Macabre. A landmark of the Grammy Award winner’s eight-year tenure at the New York Philharmonic, under his leadership György Ligeti’s surrealist opera was hailed as an “instant Philharmonic milestone” (New York Times) that represented the “Best Classical Performance of 2010” (New York magazine). Now, as Chief Conductor Designate of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Gilbert revisits Le Grand Macabre in a special, fully staged adaptation of the same multimedia production that took New York by storm. Created in collaboration with Giants Are Small, AKA visionary artist-director Doug Fitch and filmmaker-producer Edouard Getaz, this is now a co-production of the Elbphilharmonie, the German orchestra’s already iconic new home. Together with a stellar cast of soloists, Gilbert and the orchestra give three performances of the opera at this year’s Hamburg International Music Festival (May 10, 12 & 13). Home audiences around the world will be able to access their final show by means of a livestream on Monday, May 13 at 3pm EDT on Facebookand at the orchestra’s website, where it will also be available for subsequent streaming.
Based on a story by Belgian surrealist Michel de Ghelderode, Ligeti’s sole opera is an absurdist, vaudevillian satire. Combining humor, politics, and social commentary with a host of musical allusions to composers ranging from Monteverdi to Scott Joplin, it is perhaps “the most successful piece of music theatre by any avant-garde composer” (The Guardian). As Gilbert explains,
“Le Grand Macabre is a fantastic, fantastical contemporary opera. It’s basically about the existential crisis in the modern world; about finding meaning in life, wondering whether – with all the nonsense and craziness that’s going on in the world – it all amounts to a hill of beans. It’s a very strange score in many ways, but it also has amazingly traditional, lush melodies. It’s about trying to find order and meaning, and there are lots of symbolic and grotesque and unusual characters. It’s a real theatrical tour-de-force and will provide something dramatic as well as musical for everyone to identify with.”
Featuring spectacular projection and scenic design by director Doug Fitch, and larger-than-life costumes by seven-time Tony Award-winning designer Catherine Zuber, when it bowed in New York, the production was celebrated as “wildly entertaining” (New Yorker), and “a multimedia spectacular” (New York magazine). Nevertheless, as theNew York Times observed, “The hero of this production, of the whole endeavor, [was] Mr. Gilbert, who conducted the score with insight, character and command.”
Last year, Gilbert scored a fifth Grammy nomination for his new Shostakovich recording with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, where, even before launching his new tenure this fall, he has already been hailed as one of “the most important bearers of hope on Hamburg’s cultural scene” (Abendblatt). For the upcoming operatic collaboration, which serves as an upbeat to their inaugural season together, he and the orchestra will be joined by sopranos Elizabeth Watts, Heidi Melton, and Claire de Sévigné; mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons; tenor Andrew Dickinson; bass-baritones Werner Van Mechelen and John Relyea; and original New York cast members Mark Schowalter, Wilbur Pauley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Audrey Luna, and Rob Besserer.
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It is also with opera that Gilbert completes the season, when he takes the podium at Milan’s storied La Scala for Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, in a production by Graham Vick(May 28–June 17). Last season, Gilbert’s leadership of La Scala’s new Porgy and Bessscored a five-star review in the Financial Times, and prompted France’s Anaclase to declare: “The great triumphant winner of the evening is Alan Gilbert! His conducting is supple, dancing, tragic, colorful, inventive, lyrical, violent, cheerful, fierce. In a word: alive.”
Details of Gilbert’s inaugural season as Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra will be announced at a press conference in Hamburg on April 26.