It was probably a bit overambitious to go and see the ENO’s production of Glanert’s Caligula the night that I arrived back in the UK from Canada, but G had bought himself a ticket on the assumption that I’d still be in Canada, and the opportunity seemed too good to miss. It’s the British premier of the piece, and Glanert is one of those modern composers that one really should have heard of but doesn’t get much performance or air time here in the UK. The opera is based on Camus’ 1938 play of the same title; I’ve talked about layers of reception in performance before (for instance, in the Rameau Castor and Pollux), but this takes it to a whole other level. Camus was particularly interested in using Caligula as a figure to think with, especially in a world that was creating Hitler and Stalin. Glanert’s choice in 2006 to pick up the tool to think with in the era of Gadaffi, Kim Jong Il and Mugabe is particularly pointed.
This immediately tells you that, in classical reception terms, the direction is going to be a little off. This isn’t a play, and thus an opera, about the historical reality of Caligula, although Camus clearly knew his source material and picks out a number of incidents from Suetonius to work with (Caligula dressing up as Venus was a particularly brilliant sequence). The author is far more interested in what it means to be a dictator – what it does to an individual’s psyche, what the effects on the people around them are, the kinds of decisions and pay-offs that are made. This Caligula is cruelly, brutally calculating, bringing things to their logical conclusions – for instance, if the state wants money so much, then the logical thing to do is prioritise the acquiring of money above the lives of citizens.
The music picks up on this and is superb. The piece is scored so that you actually hear things like the rush of blood to Caligula’s head, the ‘voices’ that speak to him, and his heartbeat – yes, it sounds cheesy, but it’s amazing what a dramatically timed set of timpani can do in the right hands. The other really great thing the music does is capture the sense of all other characters on the stage focussing their emotions to mimic those of Caligula – the sense of treading on eggshells, not wanting to get on his bad side. And because the production is explicit about what happens to those who do get on his bad side, you believe the frantic panic of the music.
It is, however, not entirely successful, and the reasons for that fall entirely around act two, in which Caligula humiliates a group of senatorials, murdering one and raping the wife of another, and essentially sets the stage for his character of brutality. The problem is twofold. First, the action comes to a bit of a fever pitch, more Berlusconi than Brezhnev, without quite the underlying menace to communicate the rational and deliberate evil that Caligula has chosen to commit. Second, the staging is misused.
Now, the staging is perfectly used for the rest of the opera. The set is formed of a bank of stadium seats, which immediately makes you think of North Korea’s Mass Games as well as all sorts of other social control methods that dictatorships use on their populations (including public executions). The characters wander up and down the seats, although most of the performance happens in front of them, in the arena-space, a public performance for the people’s consumption in which they must applaud or suffer the action of the men with guns frequently patrolling the stage. This is a good nod back to the old Roman tradition of bread and circuses; I wrote a little about the modern turn-around of this trope in my thoughts on Madonna’s Superbowl performance, but in this case Caligula is firmly in control not only of the performance but also the audience’s responses. It’s a powerful comment on the force of dictatorships, and is a canny way to bring Camus’ reflections into a very contemporary setting.
But in the second act, in which Caligula’s dinner party causes such havoc, the people sitting in the seats are performers themselves. There was a bunch of chorus girls, some beauty queens, some elderly men, a couple of clowns… and the problem was that one wasn’t quite sure what they were doing there or how they added to the action. So instead of focusing entirely on the very powerful and disturbing stuff going on in the plot, I found myself wondering what the people in the seats were going to do to advance things. Answer – not very much. The same sort of problem, a sort of temptation to overload the stage with Symbolism rather than let the music get on with it, was in evidence in Castor and Pollux, but in this case it really stood out in an otherwise very well managed production.
One other thing struck me, from the reception viewpoint. At one point (in act two, would you believe), the senatorial types say they’ll get the servants to get dinner ready as Caligula will be dining with them that evening; Caligula responds that they don’t have any servants any more, so they’d better do it themselves. The ancient historian in me at this point was screaming that the word was slave not servant, and the economy that Caligula was calling for missed the point of how ancient society worked… Now, this may be a translation issue – what Camus wrote in French and Glanert translated into German and Amanda Holden translated into English may have shifted its semantics during the process. However, eradicating slavery from this vision of Rome seemed to be a double-edged choice. On the one hand, it brings the society in which Caligula moves closer to one that both Camus’ and Glanert’s audience can relate to, whereas slave owning would have alienated them (not at all the intention of this exploration). But that choice also takes away the opportunity that the ancient sources take advantage of – to consider the relationship of the dictator and his people as that between master and slave, and the indignity that then imposes on free citizens. I can see the logic behind the decision, but I wonder what would have happened if Camus had decided to keep the slavery in.
I can’t finish without adding a comment on the performance of Yvonne Howard as Caligula’s wife, Caesonia. She was superb, not least because she managed a surprisingly convincing portrait of a wife who sticks with her husband despite all the dreadful things he does (including her knowledge of his love for his dead sister Drusilla, whose naked body provided a continual and startling silent presence on the stage throughout the piece). Her death scene, suffocation at Caligula’s hands, was disturbingly consensual and erotic, providing a surprisingly quiet and drawn out episode before the swift chaos of Caligula’s murder. I think it is her performance, especially as she sat smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of wine in apparent obliviousness of her husband’s dreadful behaviour, that is going to stay with me the most.