Though you can't tell from the outside, this is the 8th and final volume in Sony's Ligeti Edition. It's also the only currently available recording of the revised (1997) version of Ligeti's only opera, captured from a live performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Chatelet in Paris. As of March 2010, Sony has made the entire Ligeti Edition series available in an inexpensive nine-CD box set that includes these two CDs, so you should probably just buy that set instead of this one if you're interested in Ligeti's music.
Le Grand Macabre, by far the lengthiest of Ligeti's works, represented a culmination of Ligeti's work to date. After this he seemed to feel that he could not go on rewriting works like Atmosphères and Aventures, and like Beethoven, he fell relatively silent for a few years before resuming in a more neoclassical vein with the horn trio. Alas, although I enjoy experimental theater, and support efforts to extend music theater and other forms of theater beyond simulationism, I've never warmed to Meschke's libretto. Rendered in a more-or-less traditional operatic context (albeit with postmodern music), this setting of Gheldorode's ballade seems more pompous and self-indulgent than surreal or profound. Perhaps this text just isn't the caliber of Beckett, Jarry or Robert Wilson. Or perhaps a less ostentatious theatrical context would better suit the work. But I think that deploying the accoutrements of traditional Western opera to construct a satire of that tradition is probably a losing proposition overall: it's just too "easy" to poke fun of a genre that requires so much suspension of disbelief. The most successful avant garde operas tend to either stay outside the capabilities of conventional opera companies (Einstein on the Beach, for example, uses neither a traditional orchestra nor bel canto singers), or else look to extend the artform musically and dramatically rather than looking backwards (Taverner, Ulisse, Die Soldaten, etc.).
Ligeti always seemed better suited for nonsensical or abstract texts than he did with concrete texts. The vernacular often took him toward a literalism that undermines the depth of his highly cultivated musical language. Contrast the overly particularlized text painting and straightforward puns of Le Grand Macabre to Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures, especially in a good staging that brings out the humor. Or consider how powerful and radical Ligeti's Requiem, with its jaded Latin text, still sounds 40 years later (Stanley Kubrick or no). But then -- and this is a big caveat -- I've never seen a live staging of this opera. And as of December 2009, I've only heard of a single North American production (San Francisco, 2004) -- sadly, opera companies this side of the Atlantic are very conservative, since they rely on local patronage from corporations and wealthy individuals, and get little public support. So there's a good chance that I'm missing something that would be evident when the work is entrusted to a skilled director. Several European productions have been very well received, so I reserve the right to change my mind.
Whatever misgivings I have about the libretto don't extend to the music, which is marvelous. Much of it sounds like Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures, but in English and with a full orchestral accompaniment. A few passages are closer to the Ligeti of Atmosphères and Volumina. Many passages anticipate the neoclassical orientation of late period Ligeti. The music of the lover couple (whose characters were named Spermando and Clitoria in the original, but now bear expurgated monikers) is often reminiscent of Clocks and Clouds, sometimes with undulating chromatic lines in the strings and woodwinds outlining chromatic scales in an example of classic Ligeti micropolyphony. Other passages represent a departure, and presage the more pitch-oriented works of Ligeti's late period. And there's a good dose of postmodern pastiche, such as the passage starting at 1:16 of Track 6 in the opera's first scene, which I read as a quotation of common modernist licks. The second scene is of a style associated with post-War composers like Tippett and Birtwhistle. And the work ends with a diatonic passacaglia of tenuous tonality. Nekrotzar's Entrance in the third scene may be the most famous excerpt, a passacaglia over a crazy distortion of the theme from the finale of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. There are other allusions to specific pieces, such as Offenbach's Can Can in Scene 2. And of course there are plenty of parodies of operatic conventions, such as the male lover being sung by a female singer in a satire of the trouser role tradition, or the moralizing ensemble ending recalling operas like Don Giovanni (or The Rake's Progress). What remains constant is Ligeti's mastery at eliciting an almost unbroken succession of unexpected colors from the voices and instruments.
A full libretto is supplied. The recording makes a nice contrast with the original German version of Le Grand Macabre, which you might be able to track down from the Wergo recording, either complete or condensed into a concise and very enjoyable format (as there was originally much more spoken dialog than the 1997 version). And of course this recording is in English, which Ligeti now prefers over the German or Swedish of the original. The play by Michel de Ghelderode is in French, so Ligeti and Meschke retained the language of the title.