Based upon the play by Albert Camus, Detlev Glanert’s opera – written in 2006 and now receiving its UK premiere – is an exploration into the mindset of the brutal Roman Emperor, and a study of just how devastating the consequences can be when one with so much power chooses to exert it arbitrarily.
In Caligula’s case, the death of his sister and lover leads him to withdraw from society, only to return with a plan to obtain the moon, and to proclaim laws that will devastate the Empire. There is, however, no coherent vision for the future in his mind; his grief has led him to conclude that: ‘All men are not happy and are dying’. The confusion in Caligula’s philosophy persists, so that when he pushes his wife, Caesonia, towards her death, he persuades her to accept both her destiny and the rule of the law.
Benedict Andrews – who recently directed Cate Blanchett in Gross und Klein at the Barbican – directs a production which is just as dirty and ambiguous as the Emperor’s own philosophy. When the noble Mereia (Eddie Wade) is poisoned, the thick treacle-like liquid is forced down his throat, spilling all over his front. Seeing Livia (Julia Sporsén) stumbling and puking in the aftermath of her rape is almost as disturbing as having witnessed the act itself, while soldiers rush on and bundle off the dead in body bags.
Ralph Myers’ football stadium set is a modern day equivalent to the amphitheatre; metaphorically it becomes a political arena and it doubles as both a public and private space. Caligula’s retreat is captured by him standing alone in the auditorium, but when it is full it represents all sections of society, with sweepers vying with showgirls and clowns.
Peter Coleman-Wright is incredibly convincing in the title role. While his Caligula will always be too pessimistic ever to be classed as charismatic, Coleman-Wright still imbues him with a certain presence. He also throws himself completely into dressing as a golden-tressed Venus, when in his madness Caligula thinks he is a god. Yvonne Howard is a powerful and alluring Caesonia, while at opposite ends of the male vocal range Christopher Ainslie, as Helicon, possesses a superb counter-tenor voice, and Pavlo Hunka as Cherea an excellent bass.
In creating its churning rhythms, the German composer’s music is all sliding strings, sinuous wind, grinding percussion, and choral chanting and wailing. Although towards the beginning, the musical variation feels as if it is occurring within too narrowly defined parameters, this difficulty does not persist. Indeed, the moments of silence are just as important as the most climactic passages in the score, and the end of Act One sees the choral crescendos interspersed with single lines from Caligula and Caesonia. This is a challenging score, and one that will never feel as instantly accessible as La bohème or Madam Butterfly, but conductor Ryan Wigglesworth helps by providing such a coherent account of it.