Caligula, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2012

Caligula ruled for just under four years (AD 37–41) before being assassinated at the age of 28. He was the emperor who threatened to make his horse a consul, simply to mock the subservience of the aristocracy, and when one sycophant proffered his own life should the emperor recover from illness, Caligula took it from him as soon as he was well. That incident appears in this opera, towards the end, and is one of several deaths, including Caligula’s own, stabbed by numerous hands. Yet afterwards he stands up and cries out, “I am still alive”. A minute later the opera ends, more or less as it starts, with a scream.

I am still alive! All images Johan Persson

At the beginning there is silence. A hand appears … then a man, and finally the curtain opens. A naked woman shrouded in white falls dead; the man screams. This is the death of Caligula’s lover and sister, Drusilla. Her death unhinges him, and he demands the moon.

The mirror as moon

When the moon is mentioned, as it is many times, the music has a sultry quality reminiscent of the humid moonlit night in Richard Strauss’s Salome, and there are other similarities, as when four nobles all sing contrasting things together.

The music by Detlev Glanert kept my attention throughout, though Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s libretto, well translated by Amanda Holden and based on a play by Camus, was slightly lacking in dramatic tension. The play, written during the Second World War, was a response to the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, but Glanert’s opera, written in 2006, had more recent material to work with, and Benedict Andrews’ production reminded me of North Korea. All those flowers, the little yellow flags being waved by everyone in the stadium on stage, and the army with machine guns at the ready.

Caligula’s slave

Yet the characters were those of Rome, and Peter Coleman-Wright gave a superb performance of Caligula, with Yvonne Howard singing beautifully as his wife, Caesonia. Caligula’s slave, Helicon, who may well have been a eunuch, is a counter-tenor role, well performed by Christopher Ainslie, and Ryan Wigglesworth in the orchestra pit made huge sense of Glanert’s music.

Dress was modern, but with bizarre costumes for clowns, cartoon characters and women in various cabaret outfits thrown in. The naked Drusilla, shrouded in white at the start, becomes a naked woman in gold paint, and in Act III Caligula appears as Venus, wearing a dress and marrying the moon.

He is having an affair with Mucius’s wife and drags her out from dinner to have sex with her, despite the fact that she’s on her period, and after it’s over she returns to the table and throws up. You wonder why they don’t just kill the man, but then when they conspire to do it and he reappears everyone fawns on him. Brutal dictatorship is not a pretty sight, and this is not a pretty opera, but the music carries it forward, giving us an insight into the insanity of narcissistic paranoia.

Performances continue until June 14 — for details click here.

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