You can’t go wrong with Caligula as the title of an opera even if it is contemporary
by Melinda Hughes
You can’t go wrong with Caligula as the title of an opera even if it is contemporary. Now I’m not an aficionado of modern opera but in recent years the little I have experienced has been pleasingly accessible and melodic. ENO’s production of Detlev Glarnet’s Caligula is no different.
Based on the play by Camus we arrive at a point in Caligula’s life where he has pushed the extremes of debauchery and degradation, so if you are looking for Bacchanals and titillation you won’t really find it here. It’s all been done to excess. Caligula can do no more and has reached his own crisis point brought on by the death of his sister and lover Drusilla who haunts him throughout the opera.
Life means nothing anymore. He is tired and lonely; no longer taking pleasure in the old vile sadistic acts even though he continues to humiliate, taunt, kill even rape those closest to him in an extended burst of tyrannical madness.
The opera is set amongst the bleachers of an American baseball stadium where a dead, naked Drusilla played by the stunning actress Zoe Hunn first appears and continues to play an integral role throughout the opera. An amplified heartbeat throbs over the music and an array of surreal characters – Las Vegas show girls, prostitutes, sports fans and cleaners – come and go, providing no end of visual indulgence.
Peter Coleman Wright in the title role gives a stunning and tireless performance. He manages to channel Hannibal Lecter with a touch of Berlusconi and even a dash of Barry Humphries in a scene where he appears in his own cabaret show as Venus. I wondered how on earth he managed to step out of existing in such a state of crazed depravity without it affecting him. I am proud to say the level of acting from all the singers was beyond impressive, so don’t ever tell me opera singers can’t act!
Yvonne Howard, singing Caligula’s wife Caesonia, was powerful and all-engulfing. Carolyn Dobbin as the poet Scipio was touchingly sung and played and countertenor Christopher Ainslie was a superb Helicon, managing that perfect balance of both victim and inflictor of pain within this absurd court. Amanda Holden’s translation really worked for me. I loved the natural colloquial feeling of the text and the delivery of it. As always, there was perfect diction and fluid singing.
“I’m still alive,” sings Caligula after he is stabbed by an angry mob, meaning I will return in many different guises in hundreds of years to come.
I highly recommend this opera. Apart from the standard of singing and the expert conducting of Ryan Wigglesworth, I feel that there is little opportunity even in this great city to be pushed intellectually and creatively on such a grand scale. We manage it in theatre, modern dance, of course in cinema and literature but the ENO seems to be the only large-scale opera company that can excite me with new and wonderful things. (That said, if you want to see something equally extraordinary I highly recommend the revival of Salome at the Royal Opera House.)
The ENO have yet again managed to present a stunning, exciting and challenging production. Your alternative is Sasha Baron Cohen’s disappointing film The Dictator (so utterly dreadful and base I walked out). Don’t go and see that dross, go and see this!
Caligula is on at the ENO until Thursday 14 June