English National Opera – Caligula

Detlev Glanert
Caligula – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel based on the play Caligula by Albert Camus [UK premiere; sung in the English translation by Amanda Holden]

Caligula, Roman Emperor – Peter Coleman-Wright
Caesonia, his wife – Yvonne Howard
Helicon, Caligula’s slave – Christopher Ainslie
Cherea, a procurator – Pavlo Hunka
Scipio, a young patrician – Carolyn Dobbin
Mucius, a senator – Brian Galliford
Mereia / Lepidus, both nobles – Eddie Wade
Livia, Mucius’s wife – Julia Sporsén
Four poets – Greg Winter, Philip Daggett, Gary Coward & Geraint Hylton
Drusilla – Zoe Hunn [acting role]

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Ryan Wigglesworth

Benedict Andrews – Director
Ralph Myers – Set designer
Alice Babidge – Costume designer
Jon Clark – Lighting designer
Denni Sayers – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 May, 2012
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Peter Coleman Wright (Caligula, ENO, May 2012). Photograh: Johan PerssonThe first night of the UK premiere of Caligula caught the interest of some distinguished musicians: Mark Padmore, Paul Daniel, Mark Elder and Vladimir Jurowski were amongst those who attended. The sartorially elegant Detlev Glanert was also present. Glanert (born in Hamburg in 1960) has already established a notable reputation for his operas and orchestral works, the latter including Shoreless River, Theatrum bestiarum (both BBC commissions) and Secret Room; and not least for his 2005 orchestration and expansion of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, which has been heard in London three times to date. Glanert’s stage-works have travelled less well to the UK, although Three Water Plays made it to the Almeida Festival in 2007.

Caligula (first staged in 2006 in Frankfurt) is not Glanert’s most-recent opera, but it is a good place to start. Emperor Caligula is a changed man since the death of his sister – and lover – Drusilla. Having disappeared, his return brings a now-tyrannical man – cruel, unfeeling, hedonistic, yet he retains the love and support of his wife, Caesonia. Caligula now proclaims himself “Emperor and God” (armed with a golden gun) if with some self-loathing and a fear of loneliness. (Fleetingly, in heart and through ears, one thought of Aschenbach in Britten’s Death in Venice.) He craves ownership of the moon – “To Rule is to Steal”. His descent into insanity and iniquity is vividly charted: he rapes Livia (behind the scenes) and forces poison on Mereia. He rules through fear to suppress his enemies and is eaten by paranoia. Eventually, as usually happens to dictators, Caligula is overthrown, violently – an ageless allegory and very much of for our own time.

Benedict Andrews sets Caligula in a football stadium – with 334 tatty-looking, raked, cheap-yellow seats occupied by a galaxy of characters, including Tiller Girls (they do a dance), Miss Worlds and even Mickey Mouse – while retaining a sense of Ancient Rome. Caligula’s militia restricts movement and removes dead bodies. The atmosphere is tense and, for all the supposed space of the arena, claustrophobic.

Christopher Ainslie (Caligula, ENO, May 2012). Photograph: Johan PerssonThe opera is in four acts, paired into two by orchestral interludes, with each pair lasting about an hour (the interval needed to cleanse the floor of food, wine and vomit). The length feels right; tension is maintained across the whole. Musically, the opera is also compelling: most of German Romanticism is here, although Glanert is not aping. It is his lineage, the musical air that he breathes: he has forged a distinctive style through it, from Wagner to Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hans Werner Henze via Schoenberg (his Expressionist phase), Berg, Pfitzner, Reger, Franz Schmidt and Franz Schreker. If the music can be splenetic (with edgy Modernist gestures) it also exudes depth of feeling (not least when Caligula and Caesonia are in isolated duet – musically alluding, if from a distance, to Tristan und Isolde, intimate and eloquent) and the capacity to paint pictures, often with enchanting colours, a world beyond, recalling the complexity and illustrative magnetism (sunlight glinting on the sea) of Henze’s great Seventh Symphony. Electronic heartbeats issue a sinister threat, and the intrusion of a Doctor Phibes-like organ signals Caligula’s further mental degeneration.

If the first two acts show Caligula’s depravity, then the remaining pair regards his lunacy, literally. In a sideshow the lights are brighter; there are bouquets of flowers, too, maybe a monument for the dead. But the four poets don’t get very far – Caligula impatiently blowing the (football referee’s) whistle on them. As fixation with the moon increases, one becomes more aware of stylistic references to Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire, and Wozzeck. The overthrow of Caligula is as swift as it is bloody, not unlike the crushing of Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera.

The first-night performance was a triumph, the ENO Orchestra in top form under the perceptive conducting of Ryan Wigglesworth (himself a composer). The singers were unstinting in their words (good translation) and acting. Peter Coleman-Wright was immersed in the role of Caligula (as he was, filmed, as Harry Joy in Brett Dean’s opera, Bliss – which would be ideal for ENO). Yvonne Howard is indefatigable as the faithful wife. Christopher Ainslie’s countertenor ideally whimpers as Caligula’s slave, and informer, Helicon. Pavlo Hunka is a profoundly sonorous Cherea, Julia Sporsén’s Livia is indignant of Caligula’s lasciviousness, and Carolyn Dobbin’s Scipio’s defies Caligula (and is also penetrating of his state of mind).

Without the need for gratuitous expletives (well, a few) or a staging (well-lit and -costumed) that crowds the eye, Caligula succeeds through musical magnetism, top-drawer performances and an engrossing story well told. I’m game for a re-match!

  • Five further performances at 7.30 p.m. on May 29 & 31 and June 7, 9 & 14
  • Caligula@ENO

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