ENO staged a UK premiere on 25 May with Detlev Glanert’s Caligula. It is good that we move away from what some might call ‘core repertory’, which I fully applaud, but feel that here it didn’t quite work. Caligula, for the majority who won’t know it, is based upon the novel of the same name by Albert Camus from 1938, itself based upon the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius from the first century AD. For Glanert’s work think John Adams’ Nixon in China, or Philip Glass’ Akhenaten crossed with Britten’s Gloriana. A slowly paced story but with frenetic orchestration. His music is full of tense percussion but little melody or overt rhythm. Recitative is spoken as often as sung; singing is more likely solo than duet, speech is as common as song.
A full house to start with, of all ages, creeds and colours was thinned at the interval as those who voted with their feet left en-mass; I would wager not less than ten percent. I doubt if it will return to ENO on this showing.
The story starts as Caligula is found after going missing for three days following the death of his sister/lover Drusilla; his madness has begun. She appears throughout (one imagines in his mind for us to see) stark naked walking through the action but oblivious to it and they to her; Act two she is covered in gold paint and later glitter (think Goldfinger). I wonder if she isn’t there purely to titillate; that something is needed to enliven a production which at times seems rather repetitive.
The same set was made to work for the whole evening. A steeply raked football terrace (think Coliseum in Rome, Hitler’s Berlin Olympics etc) was peopled by a motley assortment of characters that included petting lesbians, Pacman, Kermit, and a carrot with legs (yes really), and any number of national costumes. Metaphor I am sure, but of what, not sure. The action is set in present times with suits and dressing gowns, occasionally Caligula goes down to his underpants – dare I say the Emperor has no clothes?
That Caligula was not the sweetest toffee in the bag is no secret. The catalogue of his misdemeanours is long and turgid and this opera gives a précise only. We do have rape, murder, and threats aplenty; derangement, spite and viciousness. He wields a gold plated machine gun, poisons, strangles and conducts a chimpanzee’s tea party – all one gathers, to see how far he can go before anyone contradicts his royal commands. No-one does, so he must try harder to be more outrageous. A continuing theme was that he wasn’t lonely as his head was full of the ghosts of those he had murdered, and that he was the only free person in Rome as he could do as he liked etc. We are invited to feel for him, but cannot.
There were issues. Helicon, Caligula’s personal slave is sung by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie. I love a counter tenor voice and could (and sometimes do) listen to it all day long. Set within a Handellian oratorio it’s second to none but here, sometimes against instrumentation it failed to resemble, it was nothing less than Minnie Mouse in a huff. The irony of this is that Helicon was most probably a eunuch so probably ought to be in this register. Ainslie is a good singer, its not his fault, it must be poorly conceived in this context if people laugh out loud, as many in the audience did near me. Also, dramatically the evening is a catalogue of small equal moments rather than one big denoument. We know from the outset what sort of man he is, and what he does, when we know that he is killed himself at the end there is nothing left in the drama ‘kitty’.
Those actually singing cannot be faulted though, Peter Coleman-Wright in the title role and Yvonne Howard his wife Caesonia gave of their all and more. In character they were teasing and nasty but never quite convincing.
Well worth a try, I guess, but it was too insubstantial a segment of story to base a 180 minute opera upon.