Friday, 1 June 2012

Caligula, ENO

In the end I'd really no idea exactly to whom I was listening. Was it Camus? Was it Detlev Glanert's librettist, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, or the translator for this production in English, Amanda Holden? Was it even the ghost of Tinto Brass, director of the notorious 1979 film? Certainly there were cinematic elements in the staging, recalling anything from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) to the apocalyptic scenes of Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976) and even an allusion to Baron Saha Cohen's current film The Dictator.

The voice matters because it might have made sense of the fragmented spray of buzzwords and unfinished dialogue snippets that constituted the narrative. One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was trying to catch a wave, to find and join the dramatic impetus. It was just too elusive. A put-upon looking populace (the excellent, and one might add, game ENO chorus) is no drama in itself, neither the ruling collective of cowed ministers who oscillate between whinging and sycophancy. Hope blossomed every time Carolyn Dobbin came to the front of the stage, not only for the consistently fine quality of her singing as Scipio but also as she seemed to have the most developed character both on the page and in the playing of it. The young patrician's poetic sensibility would lead him into a false sense of intimacy with the mad despot despite hating him for killing his father. Similarly Caligula's obsession with the dead Drusilla (a courageous Zoe Hunn, naked throughout the show) showed a weak underbelly to the maniacal emperor.

The frustration is in a failure of making these things pertain to one another. Just because it's terrifying for the characters on the stage to be confronted by an absolute ruler who can't connect his thoughts doesn't mean that this should be visited on the audience. It would appear that this was being justified by its timelessness, by its particular relevance to the current privations in society caused by financial turbulence at home and conflict abroad. As satire though this was a dead production, with lukewarm humour, and recognisable phrases spat out to mollify the audience struggling to grasp the longer thread: 'we're all in this together!' says Caligula and everyone laughs at the contemporary reference, at the emptiness  of the tableau, the regeneration-plan stadium in half-light (the Olympics legacy!), populated with characters from big capitalism to vapid game shows. But that, like many, was a laugh because the audience is in it together with the performers and needs to contribute to try and get the thing moving, to cohere. When it didn't silence reigned once again.

Detlev Glanert's music is a thick force of modernism. The consistency is that of Birtwistle, thick and murky of palette - but with the occasional break in the cloud cover for a beautiful trio (Scipio, Cesario and Caligula in Act 2) or a dark, covered chorus offstage in Act 3 (4?). Yes, the opera was at its most affecting when quiet, intimate, rather than when playing to the crowds with slogan-sized text bites. The orchestra played precisely for Ryan Wigglesworth and I needed a drink afterwards.

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