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Caligula

LONDON
English National Opera
5/25/12

The orchestral music of Detlev Glanert has made some headway in the U.K., but apart from a single performance of his chamber-scale triple bill Three Water Plays (based on plays by Thornton Wilder) at the now defunct Almeida Opera in London in 2007, none of his major stage works had been staged in Britain until English National Opera took the bold step of presenting his large-scale Caligula at the London Coliseum on May 25. 

At sixty-one, Glanert is one of Germany's most prolific and admired composers. A pupil of Hans Werner Henze, he has adhered to his mentor's stylistic pluralism and regular commitment to the stage. He has several big pieces to his name, including Der Spiegel des Grossen Kaisers (1995), Joseph Suss (1999), Scherz, Satire, Ironie und Tiefere Bedeutung (2001), and Das Holzschiff (2010), as well as Caligula itself (2006); in July 2012 his Solaris has its premiere at the Bregenz Festival.

Hans-Ulrich Treichel's libretto for Caligula (sung here in Amanda Holden's expertly crafted English translation) derives from Albert Camus's play of the same name, written during World War II. Camus's take on one of the most notorious of all Roman Emperors is that he was unhinged by the death of his sister and lover Drusilla, and that his subsequent bizarre behavior and vicious cruelty stem from a kind of cosmic depression and despair; for him, humanity no longer has any value, and his own vile actions are designed, among their many other perverse intentions, to bring about his own assassination.

It's a story whose unpleasant and grotesque elements could easily lead to a sensationalist approach — as in the notorious 1979 film of the same title, though that had nothing to do with Camus. In the hands of Australian director Benedict Andrews, working with designers Ralph Myers (sets) and Alice Babidge (costumes), the potential for the narrative's mere shock value was minimized by the integrity and economy of the whole. Nothing felt added in specifically to provoke controversy, though inevitably, with such a subject, sex and violence featured prominently.

The costumes were contemporary, and the setting was a portion of a vast modern sports arena, where the Roman populace occasionally gathered to sit en masse and was otherwise present in a sprinkling of frequently strangely attired individuals or small groups. The main activities of Caligula, his courtiers and henchmen played out on the floor of the arena directly in front of the seating. Represented by the silent actress Zoe Hunn, Caligula's dead sister Drusilla made regular appearances to underline the personal context of Caligula's aberrant behavior.

The piece falls into four acts, running (including interval) to two and a half hours. A vast orchestra is used. One of the most notable features of the piece is the sheer accomplishment with which Glanert handles his forces and his material. The most obvious musical influences — regularly referenced, though not actually quoted — are Strauss's Elektra and especially Salome (a connection underlined by frequent mentions of the moon, and also by the dance undertaken by Caligula himself just before the final scene). Elsewhere, the score partakes of a postmodern blending of late-Romantic influences (Korngold sometimes comes to mind) interspersed with some blatantly modernist gestures. The result is surprisingly congruous, regularly fascinating, largely immediate in its impact and often very beautiful; overall, the writing contains far more delicacy than brutality. It's a significant achievement.

Here the young British composer and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth led a confidently authoritative performance. Christopher Ainslie's immaculately beautiful countertenor made its mark as Caligula's loyal slave Helicon. As Caligula's wife Caesonia, Yvonne Howard's rich mezzo gave her conspiratorial plotting a certain grandeur. Pavlo Hunka's sizable and centered bass-baritone lent him gravitas as Caligula's advising procurator Cherea even amid the steadily mounting chaos. In the trouser role of the young patrician Scipio, Carolyn Dobbin's lithe, focused mezzo attracted both positive attention in itself and sympathy for the character.

Bestriding the stage like a demented colossus was the Caligula of Peter Coleman-Wright. It's a gigantic role; the character is rarely offstage, dominating not just the action but the score itself. Glanert asks for a dramatic baritone in the part, and Coleman-Wright lacked the ideal weight for such an assignment; but he hurled everything he had tirelessly at it and came through the evening more than honorably. spacer

GEORGE HALL

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