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Caligula, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Caligula, English National Opera

Caligula, English National Opera

Detlev Glanert's new opera is clichéd and pointless

The theatricality of power: Glanert's 'Caligula'Johan Persson

Mass murder. Incest. Rape. Madness. This is quite a lot to be getting on with for a three-hour opera. Too much perhaps. Indeed, German composer Detlev Glanert seems so busy trying to pack in all the Grand Guignol elements that one expects from a portrait of Caligula that he never quite gets around to saying anything interesting about any of it. All we learn about tyranny - the work's main theme - is that it is cruel, it knows no limits and that it consumes and begets itself. I'm sure Albert Camus's original 1944 play talks much more about existential cause. About the only moment that approaches the level of an original idea is the work's riff on the theatricality of power. But this topic was explored more interestingly by director Benedict Andrews.

Andrews has lots of ideas. This will not surprise any of those who caught his exceptional The Return of Ulysses last year. His visuals are striking. In a nod to the Coliseum's namesake, he plants us for the duration of the evening at the English National Opera in the terraces of a modern stadium (main picture). It's clever compositionally, in that the raking allows for a more engaging spread of activity than a flatter stage would, as well as, to a certain extent, conceptually. Stadia are beloved of autocrats. The bloody spectacle of authoritarianism relies on them - for rallies as much as for mass executions. This modern despot and his court seem at home here.

They are joined in the stands by plenty of familiar faces. Ronald MacDonald. Kermit the Frog. Mickey Mouse. A team of generic cheerleaders. Symbols of Western capitalism. I understand the basic point he is trying to make. That tyranny is a form of show that tries to hide the truth through diversion. And that (for some) consumerist capitalism behaves in a similar fashion. But ancient tyrannies have even more in common with other tyrannies. And we're not short of them at the moment. For a director to focus largely on the similarities that consumerist capitalism may have with Caligula's evils and for him only in passing to reference today's real-life Caligulas strikes me as pretty morally bankrupt. Worse than that, the Žižekian idea of a zonked-out capitalist life being as bad as one that is lived under authoritarianism is not only wrong, it's a cliché. And it made a rather fresh bit of direction suddenly look very tired.

Normally at this point in a review one homes in on the white knights. Opera always has its white knights. Singers who snatch the evening from the jaw's of eternal boredom. Arias whose sweetness eradicates all memories of what has gone before. The nearest we got to this was conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, whenever he was given the chance, delivered much of subtlety and delicacy.

Beyond this, mediocrity reigned. Glanert's neo-Romantic score, though intermittently intriguing when hushed of voice, engaged too often in hackneyed musical tropes - organ dissonances for moments of tension, harps and flutes for repose, choral minimalism for night-time reflection. Little of the singing was memorable. Then again very few of the singers received much memorable material. Yvonne Howard's Caesonia, Caligula's wife, clung to her man convincingly enough. Caligula's lackey, Helicon (Christopher Ainslie, pictured above right), turned out as a Caravaggio boy, has a pretty aria at the start of the second half. Amanda Holden's translation sounded far too much like a translation.

All of this, however, might not have mattered but for one thing: Caligula. Ultimately, a portrait piece like this lives or dies by the lead performance. And sadly Peter Coleman-Wright (pictured above left) had none of the stage presence or vocal flexibility needed to make Caligula's petulant ways anything but of passing interest. 

Peter Coleman-Wright had none of the presence or flexibility needed to make Caligula's petulant ways anything but of passing interest

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Comments

Possibly one of the best modern operas I've encountered and I've been attending since 1968...Beats your Ades, your Turnage and your Birtwhistle perhaps that rankles, by the way I'm British but at least can recognise a masterpiece when I see one...

This reviewer imputes spurious analogies to this production, and then preaches against them. What a waste of time! By the way, the opera's fantastic. Wonderful rich and varied music, a thought-provoking and poetic libretto (the translation sounded beautifully handled to me, and I believe that the composer would have altered his rhythms to fit the new language - something you can't do with Mozart or Verdi) and captivating performances. Yvonne Howard sings particularly beautifully, while Peter Coleman-Wright, though less than luxurious of tone, produces a sensational characterisation of the fascinating figure of Caligula.

Caligula corrections - the opera is exactly two - not three - hours long. the date of the Camus play on which the libretto is closely based is 1938. why does the arts desk use `critics' who get their facts wrong from the start and seem hell bent on slagging off an interesting opera with a production that was obviously a big success in every way? as far as i can tell he wasn't listening - or hearing!

We went in at 730. We got out at 1030. Three hours. Camus' play was published in 1944. Why does theartsdesk publish commenters who get their facts wrong from the start and seem hell bent on slagging off an interesting review?

play was written 1938, first performed 1945 - opera has exactly 2 hours' music.

An interesting comment about the commenters getting their facts wrong, when the reviewer seems to struggle with his. For example, Helicon's aria is about 5 minutes after the start of the opera. About an hour from the second half. As for Amanda Holden's translation, it is wonderful!

If you'd been paying closer attention, you might have noticed that Helicon has a second song in the second half.

Peter Coleman-Wright had the most incredible stage presence and there was some ravishing singing from Yvonne Howard. Also a shame there is no mention of the stunning performances of the ENO orchestra and Chorus. It was extremely moving (and unusual) to see the orchestra giving the composer a standing ovation at the curtain call.

What is Igor talking about? Is he a failed baritone who can't get a job at ENO? Peter Coleman-Wright has more stage presence than anyone I have ever seen. This production is amazing. Perhaps the arts desk should reconsider their reviewer? Isn't it sad that critics are generally so bitter and twisted that they cannot appreciate the courage of those who give their best effort in performance.

It is hard to believe Mr. Toronyl-Lalic saw the same production of Caligula as I did. Peter Coleman-Wright was extraordinary as was the piece itself. My experience of the Arts Desk critic is that he is perversely attention-seeking and therefore unreliable.

I don't always agree with Mr Toronyi-Lalic but I have to come to his defense here and say I agree with almost every word on Caligula. A dull evening with little of interest in any department.

I enjoyed this performance, too, thought Coleman-Wright great and the music very listenable to, and something I want to hear again. And how about a word for Zoe Hunn as the ghost of Drusilla. OK, she didn't have to sing or speak, but she did have to walk around naked on the stage for most of the two hours. (On the timing, it certainly didn't finish at 10:30; I stayed till the curtain came down and walked to Waterloo afterwards and caught a train at 10:30.

What a fascinating contrast with Hugh Canning's review for The Australian in which he calls the evening "triumphant" - "the evening belongs above all to Coleman-Wright and Andrews, both rapturously received by the audience, along with the composer and exemplary conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, at the close. Caligula is a great company achievement, but it is a milestone for a singer with a long and distinguished career at both London houses and a director who seems the most exciting "newcomer" to opera and theatre in London in decades."

Amazing differences of opinion! I do think that this reviewer must have been having a bad day at the office! This is a fantastic production, of a wonderful piece. The fact it is set in a stadium only adds to the claustraphobia and oppression of the regime, it becomes more colliseum-like as poets try to survive. (Andrews 'Ulysses' last year was also a very claustrophobic show, a theme for sure...) The references to consumerism are more elements of the popular subconscious, and a cross-section of the service industry and are in fact victims ('the condemned') of the regime. I think this reviewer has limited his vision by his own prejudice. The music is very reminiscent of grand dramatic Mahler, but with Berg/Stravinsky-esque percussion. This makes it very accessible for a living composer. His music is very sensitive to the text which makes for a more theatrical production (sadly the translation from the original German does its job but can be disjointed). As for the singing - Caligula was immense. Its a huge role, and Peter Coleman-Wright was fantastic. The other singers were also excellent, across the board. As an experience this show is engrossing and challenging, whilst still remaining musically accessible. Sure to become a modern classic methinks.

I sat through this excruciating piece having been excited by a friend's explanation of all the whacky set pieces, costumes and interestingly captured nuances which the director had apparently drawn out of the subject matter and from his 'extremely accomplished' cast. In point of fact it was simply one of the most dreadful, tedious, discordant, ridiculous, sloppy, messy, untaxing (to the imagination or interpretive faculties), disjointed and ugly vehicles for self aggrandisement a pretension which I have ever endured. I kept hoping for a change in tempo, light at the end of the tunnel and a revelation, but all we got (we poor souls in the audience) was more of the same lunacy and rambling from the unfortunate buggers on stage. They appeared somewhat bemused by the polite ripple of applause at the end and seemed genuinely embarrassed that they were involved in the spectacle at all, and had committed such a heinous act of torture for as long as it last - which seemed like months. I have never craved coffee and a pop tune so much in my life and couldn't get out of the Coliseum fast enough. I am awaiting notification of when I can collect my medal from the Director General of ENO but may simply request that it is mailed to me rather than risk catching a reprise of this 'hostile-to-the-senses' debacle. Truly awful.

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