Caligula – or the problem with the Coliseum

26 May

The ENO had cheap tickets for Caligula so I went down to Row H in the Dress Circle (normally I stick to the front of the Upper Circle) for this, the UK premiere of Glanert’s 2006 opera (25th May).  The acoustic is surprising good (I’d thought the sound might be affected by the Upper Circle stretching out above you, but what I heard was very clear) but you feel miles away.  And this was accentuated by the huge set that Benedict Andrew had chosen to fill the stage.  It’s a vast bank of seats from a sports stadium: it’s a really good background, in theory, for an opera about a dictatorship and it pushes a lot of the action to front of the stage – again, good in theory.  The problem was that this vast set dwarfed the characters and made some scenes – like the remarkable impersonation of Venus – seem cramped and clumsy.

This was a shame because I’m sure it blunted the impact of what struck me as a very promising, potentially exciting opera.  It shows you a series of episodes in the life of Caligula and, in particular, his relationships with his wife, Caesonia and a group of senators, as a he pulls a series of increasingly sadistic tricks and bizarre events.  It’s also an existentialist exploration of power, as you would expect, given that it’s based on Camus.  Perhaps it is little too long, but there are some haunting scenes and some that are really beautiful – like Caesonia’s arias and the lamenting of the citizens.  He makes sure that you can hear the words (the translation by Amanda Holden was clear and impeccably delivered by the cast – surtitles were almost completely redundant).  There are some exciting things in the music though it strikes me as very strong if quite generically late 20th/early 21st century, owing a lot to Berg, Henze and Britten but without the uniform dramatic force or individuality of those. There are striking moments and episodes but I found my attention wandering.  I don’t think the theatre or production helped: I think you need a smaller auditorium and less massive set to allow some of the more internal moments to come across but also to enable the horror and ghastliness of Caligula to dominate the audience a bit more.

And it depends a great deal on the Caligula who has to dominate the stage and the auditorium.  Peter Coleman-Wright has always seemed to me to be a very able, intelligent and committed singer, good at drawing you in to the internal workings of the character, but not someone with the extrovert flashiness to command and dominate the stage.  You couldn’t but admire the stamina and his versatility, but it felt distant, not horrific or involving enough and, from my seat, it felt a long way away.  He had to compete against an overwhelming set and the vast barn and, I thought, lost, but lost valiantly.

The other roles offer great opportunities to shine at moments in the piece and I thought that Yvonne Howard as Caesonia, Christopher Ainslie as the slave, Helicon, Pavel Hunka as Cherea and Carolyn Dobbin as Scipio make particularly strong impressions – making you listen to them and conveying, so far as was possible in the vast auditorium, some of the difficulties they faced.  Ainslie and Dobbin in particular struck me as people to watch. Ryan Wigglesworth and the musicians seemed to have the score entirely within their command.

We don’t get nearly enough opportunities to see new European operas and this is a “must see” simply because of that.  It’s great to be introduced to Glanert’s music – I’d like to see some of his other operas and, in a different theatre and production, I’d see this one again.  It’s a strong, well-prepared, committed performance and it’s just a shame that I felt that, ultimately, it didn’t grab me as I feel it ought to have done.

Or perhaps I should just bite the bullet and buy more expensive seats in the Coliseum.

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