Another opera at ENO, another contemporary opera gamble to be precise. It seems that they have cornered the niche for new opera in London and they pull it off with much more brio and commitment than what Royal Opera can ever muster as a token gesture twice a year. Glanert’s work is based on a celebrated 1944 (started in 1938) play by Albert Camus. It seems the main impetus behind the expressionist colour of the music idiom and much of the staging was Camus’ language.
As the composer stated in the trailer ‘it all starts with a scream’. Indeed Caligula’s hand parted the curtain and stood in front of it and raised it as if at a camp pantomime but with an echoing pre-recorded scream. The live music was indispersed with recorded fragments of organ, breathing and other antiphonal offerings. It seems the staging of the piece on a football terrace was what annoyed a lot of reviewers but I thought it possibly the most successful part of the night. What other public arena could be in direct parallel with the Roman world’s love of spectacle and en masse entertainment than the world of football today? Also the direction was making a nod to Camus’ timing for writing the original play, as a reflection on Hitler and Stalin. The concrete, yellow chaired terrace immediately was a dead ringer for the 1936 Olympics, under the auspices of the Nazi regime. In contemporary life a football stadium is an interesting unifying space for the different classes, a place for convivial banter and darker exchanges of fury and violence. Benedict Andrews was on to something with placing the action in front or on the terrace for the whole production. It also had a unique resonance on the back of the four days of state sponsored jubilation for the Queen the past weekend before I saw Caligula. The British public had pretty much the place of the chorus who is the rent a crowd for Caligula for most of the opera. Waving flags despite the ridiculous nature of the leader. Even the translation by Amanda Holden was making allusions to the current political climate with a reference to being in this together by Caligula in Act One…the most famous and empty statement by the current UK coalition government.
Of course the obligatory nudity rule was observed, but this being Caligula one has to expect it even more. For most of the opera when the dead lover and sister of the hero, Drusilla is mentioned a naked Zoe Hunn walks about in a transparent veil and in the second half almost Bond Film like coated in a thick layer of sparkle. The ghostly presence worked and actually saved us from any awkward video projections of said ghost for which I was grateful. Also a naked male with a slit throat (sacrificial victim to Venus?) was in Venus’ sparkly enclosure.
It has to be said that one aspect of the production that was puzzling was the far too camp direction of the protagonist and Helicon. Sometimes making some very intimidating lines lose their potency, but if the goal was to project Caligula’s paranoia then we can make a leap of faith to that direction, but prima facie it was an odd choice of interpretation. Peter Coleman-Wright does not possess a unique or very beautiful voice but his interpretation was strong and surely ruled the circus on stage. The banquet in Act Two was very well judged and he was indeed as evil as he had to be in order to be both the musical and dramatic focus via the rape of Livia over the dinner table and the poisoning of Mereia. In Act Three he shows up as Venus who is about to wed the moon, complete in sparkly silver dress and blonde wig emerging from an enclosure on the upper terrace not unlike a set for a drag queen. After he fills the stadium with body bags of all his Roman victims he is murdered by a football hooligan mob and he emerges bloodied to declare he is still alive. Unfortunately the second half and the conclusion were well staged but the actual work goes a bit flat on ideas and menace. So the final proclamation by Caligula comes as a relief on what seemed a 20 minute too long second part.
The stand out protagonist of the piece was the chorus who reflects and eggs on Caligula throughout, dressed rather smartly in vintage fur coats and at times sports jerseys. They make up some of the most powerful stage pictures. For instance in the opening of Act Three they bring floral tributes to Caligula (dressed as Venus). As this is post the mass slaughter of numerous Romans their bunches of flowers that cover the seats of the lower terrace reminds us of the scenes in football stadiums after disasters when they are covered in offerings in the memory of the victims of violence. That was both poignant and also tied again the iconography of the football stadium with the undercurrent of public ritualistic expression of grief.
Yvonne Howard was a graceful Caesonia with a tough veneer of power for the crowds but with a much more vulnerable side to her interpretation when confronted with Caligula in private. She acted with elegance and sang with warmth and conviction. As did Julia Sporsen who showed silent power, sinuous singing and became the opposite of Howard for most of the opera. The overall star of the night was Ryan Wigglesworth who conducted with simple immediacy and with an unfailing focus on the singers. The orchestra sounded totally idiomatic under him and his sense of propulsion and rhythm underpinned the whole evening.
Overall I would say that Glanert’s musical idiom is not too extreme and actually very singer friendly but I would have liked a bit more danger in Act Four which was the least edgy sounding. Having the protagonist meet a grizzly end in the hands of the mob has to be a dramatic gift for any stage director and composer and it seems this time round it was far too normalised to make for great impact. But respect to ENO and the cast for giving a very good performance of a demanding piece of work and creating some interesting parallels with concurrent events that affect our everyday lives. Mary Beard must be proud that they made the Romans seem relevant in all their excesses and struggles.
The performance on Saturday 9 June was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 July 2012