Monday, 28 May 2012

Caligula and Madam Butterfly at ENO

I’d been greatly looking forward to seeing Detlev Glanert’s Caligula at ENO. I’d got to know the work a little, along with Rihm’s Jakob Lenz, when writing a feature about both of them, concluding that they were both admirable pieces that made no apologies for their status as opera and suggesting that Caligula might join Lenz as one of only a small number of new operas to cement their position in the repertoire (although, admittedly, Lenz is as old as I am, and has the advantage of requiring ‘only’ chamber forces). In the event, I was left somewhat disappointed by ENO’s performance of the Rihm in the Hampstead Theatre (my review’s here), feeling that Sam Brown’s production didn’t exactly help focus the mind, with its insistence on so much painstaking period realism. 

Peter Coleman Wright as Caligula (c) Johan Persson
Similarly, I didn’t feel at Friday evening's UK premiere of Glanert's work that Caligula was helped a great deal by Benedict Andrews’s production, where the whole action takes place in a sports stadium, with a steeply tiered grandstand (designed by Ralph Myers) rising up from the front of the stage. There’s a tunnel through which the characters enter and exit, while some often come in from the back down the central aisle, too. In his programme note, Andrews argues sensibly for this configuration, and it’s not unknown, of course, for the sports stadium to become a crucible for rather ugly expressions of statehood, quite aside from the more specific historical examples Andrews cites where they have been co-opted by fascist regimes (and, coincidentally, this week’s Panorama deals with the odious political extremism that apparently still blights football in the Euro 2012 host nations, Poland and Ukraine). He also argues convincingly that it chimes with Caligula’s apparent interest in the aesthetic representation of power, the theatricality of the torture and humiliation he inflicts on those around him.

Peter Coleman Wright as Caligula (c) Johann Persson
I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether this staging, with its unflinching emphasis on the horror of Caligula’s reign of terror – sparked off by the death of his sister and lover, Drusilla – missed some of the work’s subtlety. Drusilla was here portrayed, like the Friederike Brion added to Jakob Lenz, by a mute actress; unlike her counterpart in Lenz, though, she (played by Zoe Hunn) wanders about naked and half-dead. The palace of the original setting suggests all sorts of moments of intimate confession, as well as eavesdropping that Andrews’s production struggles to evoke. The bizarre extras dotted about – a pair of prostitutes in gold wigs, people dressed in animal masks, redneck sports fans – seem to underline Caligula’s madness as less driven by logic than Camus’s original play suggests. 

Camus wrote that his play portrayed the real horror of fascism being the result of logic being pursued and pushed to an extreme degree, but the line between calculated, logical horror and straightforward common-or-garden lunacy seems rather too blurred here. Nevertheless, Peter Coleman-Wright is enormously impressive as Caligula himself, providing a performance that is hardly less compelling, dramatically speaking, than Andrew Shore’s as Lenz. I only wished, however, for more vocal authority, for the ability to hold forth and decree with greater force and volume. This is a role which would surely benefit from a bit of suavity, too; as I let my mind wander, I idly speculated as to whether someone like Simon Keenlyside could made available for the revival (if there is one).

The other outstanding performance came from the countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Caligula’s preening, sycophantic and duplicitous slave, Helicon. There was also excellent work from Yvonne Howard as Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, and Carolyn Dobbin as Scipio, both able to enjoy moments of quasi-lyrical respite and intimacy with the emperor, where Glanert’s unflinching scoring melts into something more seductive. As a whole, though, despite some outstanding playing from the ENO orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth, the music came across as less focussed and communicative here than it had struck me when listening to the Oehms Classics set (recorded at the work’s 2006 premiere in Frankfurt) with which I’d go to know it. It’s undeniably fluent, but doesn’t lead one to care a great deal about Caligula himself, which is perhaps surprising, since, as Glanert himself has explained, it can be understood as emanating from him, reflecting his own subjective take on events. If the production had been similarly unflinching in its focus on him, maybe the effect would have been a great deal more powerful.

Photo (c) Clive Barda
It seems a bit of a jump to Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, especially since the opera’s protagonist is denied much influence on her surroundings: Puccini’s very much in control of her destiny and our reaction to it, and the work has often – and often rightly – been criticized as coldly manipulative as a result. And, needless to say, few operatic women are left more undone than ‘povero Butterfly’. When it’s well done, however, there’s only so long that one can keep dousing the emotional fire with such criticisms. 

Such was the case when I finally got around to seeing the late Anthony Minghella’s famous 2005 production for ENO on Saturday (revived here by Sarah Tipple, whose previous credit somewhat incongruously includes the West End’s Dirty Dancing). And I was pleased, too, to catch Oleg Caetani’s sure footed, beautifully gauged account of the score, with the orchestra oozing once again the sort of quality that only a few years ago was pretty rare in the Coliseum. And the production itself is gorgeous, a visual feast that wafts fragrantly from the realistic to the dreamily evocative. I seem to remember the Banraku puppetry used for Butterfly’s son dividing opinion when the production was new, but I found it properly enchanting: the fixed, wide-eyed innocence of this puppet, manoeuvred with brilliant dexterity, seemed more childlike than much of what we see from children on operatic stages.

The cast is a good one, too, and I particularly enjoyed the easy security of Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Pinkerton – subjected to a bit of pantomime-villain booing at the curtain. Mary Plazas turns in a powerful, moving Butterfly, and John Fanning is excellent as a dapper Sharpless. All ENO's revivals are designated 'classic' these days, but this one deserves the epithet. 

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