Glanert: Caligula

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 28 May 2012 4 stars

John Tomlinson and Sarah ConnollyDetlev Glanert’s opera on Albert Camus’ 1944 play Caligula, with a libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel,premiered to great acclaim in Frankfurt in 2006.

Caligula’s first UK production opened at the Coliseum last night in a new staging by much-admired theatre director Benedict Andrews.

Andrews’ production concentrates and intensifies the action of what was already a potent opera, by containing the drama in a segment of front-facing stadium seats. This set up (with set design by Ralph Myers) means that characters can slink away and lurk in the background without exiting the stage, whilst also allowing some dramatic entrances from the top of the terrace, notably of the naked Drusilla, whose presence hangs like a spectre over the opera.

Most importantly, the set turns the opera into a spectacle both for the audience in the house and the audience on the stage; an array of citizens, entertainers, poets, and so on are placed in the seats in various dispositions, to serve witness to the ever-escalating spectacle of Caligula’s rule. This dual sense of spectacle highlights one of the themes of the production: the parallels between some aspects of celebrity culture, dictatorial rule and dictatorial psychology. Whilst this theme is hardly original, it is effective here because it is not overplayed, but also, perhaps more strikingly, because of the events of recent years, where we have indeed seen the conscious absorption of celebrity into totalitarianism in figures such as Muammar Gaddafi, whose famous golden gun is echoed in the opera by Caligula’s golden AK-47.

Another thematic conceit, related to this first one, are the correspondences sought between the rhetoric of less dictatorial governments—such as the UK’s Conservatives—and Caligula’s own rhetoric. When he declares, following some swingeing restrictions aimed most directly at poorer parts of the Roman citizenry, that ‘we are all in this together’, the satiric point may be brusque but the amusement was no less wry as a result. For whilst its scenario seems more outwardly nightmarish, it is possible to experience the opera as hyperbole that nevertheless serves to convey something much more immediate and valid about our current situation than other, ostensibly more ‘realistic’ artistic works manage.

Telling the story of the final period of Caligula’s reign, in which the Roman leader mourns strangely over his sister Drusilla whilst laying waste to all around, citizen, polity and inner circle alike, the opera offers up a bombastic and sometimes terrifying spectacle. Though the sheer cruel lavishness of the terror being depicted might turn some off, I liked the excessiveness of the conceit. Andrews’ stunningly-conceived and executed (pun intended) staging, it seems to me, is crucial in the opera being able to tread on the right side of what is a thin line between terror and farce.

I also found myself appreciating the blunted charisma of Peter Coleman-Wright’s assumption of the lead. Although Coleman-Wright’s singing was sometimes found lacking in heft and presence, particularly early on, whilst also being without much sheen throughout, I enjoyed his performance very much. It played on the arrogance and carelessness of figures such as Gaddafi, echoing their hollow nature, whilst also conveying enough of a degree of frightfulness, manifest through the intimidation of his office as well as his own person, that the rest of the cast’s terror felt well-founded.

Whilst the translation (by Amanda Holden) might have been better rendered, with the presence of some occasional untidy constructions and repeated words and non-idiomatic phrases that you imagine were not in the original, the libretto offers a series of vivid moments and conceits, and a range of rich gnomic utterances.

The absurd but terrifying tone is set when Caligula demands the moon (literally) near the beginning, a trope expanded on devastatingly in the final act. The libretto establishes very concisely the opacity of the scenario, with Caligula announcing that ‘there is nothing here, only death’, before going on in perhaps the production’s most well-realised scene to proclaim, with wonderful and terrifying extravagance, a variety of oppressive laws and edicts, culminating in an impossible speech act, where Caligula declares himself ‘emperor and god’.

The tenor of the rest of this bleak show is well contained by lines such as ‘All men are dying, and no one is happy’. Again, this sort of thing may have come across as terribly ham-fisted and overcooked, but the effectiveness of the production and the lead performance (although I can understand if some people expressed reservations about the latter) mean that it doesn’t here.

CaligulaGlanert’s music is another important element in the production’s success, although it is not especially unexpected or novel. Its marshalling of a post-Romantic, richly-coloured idiom with elements of pastiche (such as the wonderful offstage choral sequence in the third act), is highly effective. The recurring low, pitching and rolling bass music from the opening creates a real sense of portent with each iteration, whilst the composer imbues the score with engaging rhetorical variety, fruitfully mixing brief speech, recitative and singing throughout, and scoring these sorts of vocal lines profligately: at one point in the second act the music moves from a barely-accompanied quartet, to tortured and lavish lyricism, to posturing parlando, in barely a few breaths.

Glanert thus uses music very well to underline the drama of the opera. This tendency, noticeable throughout, was perhaps most effectively used in the third act, where a stretched and knocked off-balance 2:3 pulse anchors much of the action, giving those stretches a sense of concentrated dramatic purpose.

Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, here making his ENO debut, attended well to the vivid colours and dramatic arcs of the score. Whilst I would have liked a greater sense of poise in some of the crescendos, particularly in the slightly overdone second, on the whole Wigglesworth and the musicians’ performance impressed.

Besides Coleman-Wright’s, the other performances were less memorable, as is perhaps to be expected in a piece of this nature. I did enjoy Yvonne Howard’s Caesonia, particularly in her stunningly intimate and distressing death scene (a highpoint for Coleman-Wright and the opera, too). Counter tenor Christopher Ainslie in the role of Helicon did not sing with quite the same gleam and beauty I’ve heard from him before, but he was an effective enough foil for Caligula nonetheless. Carolyn Dobbin’s Scipio was I’m afraid a bit of a dramatic weak link, never quite conveying the gravity of emotion that was required, which was especially unfortunate considering that Scipio and Caligula share what should be the most dramatically stirring scenes, outside the aforementioned death scene. Bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka added some darker colours to the voice range of the cast.

Overall, then, this was a striking and sometimes glorious production of what is an (intentionally) absurd opera. It is to be hoped that it heralds further UK productions of Glanert’s work, a highly renowned composer of many other operas besides Caligula after all.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Johan Persson