Thursday 7 June 2012

Caligula at ENO, or, A Dull Dictatorship

Concealed among the adverts at the back of the programme for this production is one which sadly reveals that there is a CD recording dating from roughly 2006 of this opera. I say sadly because had those making the artistic decision to stage this piece had only material on paper on which to base their decision it would have been more justifiable. Had they listened to it in advance a discerning ear might have paused.

The best writing in this score is in the orchestra, but this isn't saying a great deal. There are a couple of striking climactic moments but Glanert has problems with how to proceed after them. There's a not ineffective strangulation scene – a nice variation on the usual love duet, and a briefly melodious, almost poetic trio for Caligula, Caesonia and Scipio towards the conclusion of Act One. Otherwise the problem is, as others have observed, that Glanert doesn't seem to be able to write very effectively for voices – this is particularly exposed by the number of times they break into straight speech, and by a lack of differentiation between many of the parts.

But the problem with the evening is not simply confined to the score. The production's approach is mistaken. It's not so much a question of design (the basic set is a section of a stadium) or costuming (although that of the chorus becomes increasingly bizarre as things progress), or even the inevitable full frontal nudity, but of fundamental atmosphere. It's all very well, up to a point, to play up the bizarre, crazed silly side of Caligula's behavior. But that has to be matched to a sense of chill – one has to feel the threat beneath it all the time that, at any moment, he may decide that someone must be killed. It isn't that plenty of people don't get killed in this production – quite a few of them on stage – but it left me indifferent verging on bored. Now this is partly the text/music which is poor at engaging the emotions, but the staging could have done something to mitigate that and here Benedict Andrews and his team fail.

The performers stuck with all this give it their all. Chorus and Orchestra are on fine form and one just laments it isn't in more worthy service. Yvonne Howard's Caesonia, Christopher Ainslie's Helicon and Carolyn Dobbin's Scipio have the best there is musically and all acquit themselves well. Diction across the company is generally strong. About Peter Coleman-Wright's Caligula I was considerably less convinced. Whether through fault of direction or the singer himself he contributed to the lack of a sense of chill already discussed, and I didn't think he was vocally strong enough for the part. He sounded frequently strained, and in a number of places disappeared under the orchestra. I couldn't help feeling that the part really needed more weight than, at least this evening, he was able to muster. Ryan Wigglesworth (who has a hell of a weekend ahead with two performances of the Knussen Double Bill at Aldeburgh) guided matters effectively from the podium, and I look forward to hearing him in action again tomorrow night in rather higher quality fare.

As with last season's A Dog's Heart you can't fault the company commitment in evidence in this performance. About that opera I was very clear that it was not a work of high musical worth. The judgement on Glanert's Caligula is not as absolutely clear cut but I still do question whether there are not a great many neglected modern works which deserved to be staged first. Ultimately, this is another evening of too many in recent times at the Coliseum which left me distinctly unengaged.


The Wagnerian said...

A pity. I was somewhat interested in this but you are now the second person who's opinion I value who have said similar things. Oh well...

Finn Pollard said...

@The Wagnerian - there were clearly some who got a lot more out of it. The score has some moments, but it was the feeling of being unengaged by it which really did for me.

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