Caligula Falls Flat despite ENO’s Commitment and Skill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Glanert, Caligula (British premiere): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 25.5.2012 (MB)

Caligula: Peter Coleman-Wright
Caesonia: Yvonne Howard
Helicon: Christopher Ainslie
Cherea: Pavlo Hunka
Scipio: Carolyn Dobbin
Mucius: Brian Galliford
Mereia, Lepidus: Eddie Wade
Livia: Julia Sporsén
Four Poets: Greg Winter, Philip Daggett, Gary Coward, and Geraint Hylton

Benedict Andrews (director)
Ralph Myers (set designs)
Alice Babidge (costume designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Dennis Sayers (choreography)

Whatever qualifications I might go on to voice – not, I admit a promising start to a review – I remain in no doubt that ENO deserves applause for its commitment to staging contemporary, or at least recent, Continental European opera. The idea that any house, even one styling itself ‘English National’, should restrict its repertoire on a basis anything other than quality, should be anathema to anyone who cares about the art form, and it is heartening to note that the present management agrees. For a German house to stage both Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz and Detlev Glanert’s Caligula in the same season would be noteworthy; for an English company, it is cause for rejoicing. It was good, moreover, to see both present and past music directors, Edward Gardner and Sir Mark Elder, in the audience.

And yet… If only I could feel greater enthusiasm for the work itself. I suspect that Amanda Holden’s translation does not help, its flatness often evoking the language of the cereal packet as opposed to French existentialism. (The source is the play by Albert Camus.) There are a couple of amusing incidental moments, such as the line ‘crap nail varnish’ – presumably an operatic first – and, more tellingly, the line ‘We’re all in this together.’ Non-British readers may need enlightening, if that be the word, that the phrase is associated with the Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, as a fig-leaf of social solidarity in the face of Government policies involving massive redistribution of wealth towards the rich in the name of ‘austerity’.

But even putting language aside, and even if one can take an existentialist as opposed to a more seriously political take upon dictatorship – it seems fundamentally to be about bad or troubled personality, brought on by bereavement, with social and economic structures languishing unexplored – Glanert’s score is not up to much. There is a certain skill with respect to orchestration, but the harmony signals little more than threadbare neo-Romanticism, apparently without irony. If one might plot a scale running from knowingly allusive through derivative to what my myriad of lawyer-friends would doubtless counsel me against writing, I doubt that one would put very much of the score on the allusive side of derivative. The most compelling music was that which sounded as if it had been lifted almost wholesale from Wozzeck. There was some catchy enough dance music after the interval, but Henze did that sort of thing far more powerfully in The Bassarids. (Now there is a work we need to see on a London stage!) Britten and Wagner – a reference seemed to be made to Tristan, though I could not for the life of me understand why – were other ‘closely related’ composers; it does not seem worth the effort to trace such relationships further. Perhaps worst, the opera goes on far too long, seemingly in need of a good editor. It sounds more like a piece presented at a first workshop session than a finished article.

All of which is a pity, given that the performers and production team approached it with evident enthusiasm and skill. Perhaps the drama might have been stronger had Caligula been awarded a more prepossessing voice than that of Peter Coleman-Wright – a Matthias Goerne, for instance. But Coleman-Wright acted well, and seemed to relish his drag turn after the interval. Christopher Ainslie was perhaps the star of the show, his counter-tenor Helicon, Caligula’s slave, making one keen to hear him in Britten and other florid roles, ancient and modern. He also, not unreasonably, seemed to enjoy the opportunity to look good in a toga. Carolyn Dobbin presented an undoubtedly sincere Scipio, who might genuinely have moved, had the work permitted. The rest of the cast all impressed, both musically and in terms of acting. So did Ryan Wigglesworth’s incisive, indeed passionate, conducting, the ENO Orchestra once again on excellent form. I wish I could have shared the performers’ belief, though I am glad for their sake that they possessed it.

I have seen better work from Benedict Andrews, not least his unforgettable Return of Ulysses for ENO last season, but there of course he was dealing with a towering masterpiece, and there is certainly much to applaud in his stadium-based staging. The socio-political dimension missing from the work itself has greater prominence here. Caligula’s madness may indeed start off partly a game of capitalism, its tawdry wares of entertainment gathering a momentum of their own. Livia’s Rebekah Brooks hair-do raised a smile on my part, though that may have been coincidence rather than intent. The emptiness of fascism, the emergency strategy of monopoly capitalism as some of us are still old-fashioned enough to believe, shone through in a more meaningful way than a merely empty score. Some members of the audience clearly relished the return of the once statutory ENO nude – I recall her running onstage like a streaker in the middle of the Wolf’s Glen Scene from Der Freischütz and running back off again – since applause for her seemed more vociferous than for many who had actually sung.

Mark Berry