Emperor Caligula was widely considered one of the maddest, baddest of the Roman dictators. Based on Albert Camus’ play, Detlev Glanert’s opera explores the tyranny and consequences of such a regime and does not make for easy watching. Writing in 1944, Camus had ample case studies and, sadly, Glanert didn’t lack for contemporary examples in this 2004 adaptation.
Unhinged by the death of his sister/lover, Drusilla, Caligula disappears for three days before making a dishevelled reappearance to launch a vicious assault on his subjects. Lamenting the meaningless of life, his demands become increasingly destructive: a fearful society compliantly supports his atrocities and the body count mounts.
Whereas Camus took inspiration from the likes of Hitler and Stalin, Glanert uses a more modern dystopian setting. Transforming the stage into a large stadium draws parallels with the flag waving dictatorships we see on our television screens and this clever set composition enables the creation of some pretty engaging scenes which would be impossible on a flatter stage.
Director Benedict Andrews introduces several well-known faces: Kermit, Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse all make appearances. These bland symbols of Western capitalism serve to decorate and divert from the unfolding horror. We like some of the small touches including the prosaic nature of the litter pickers as they work between the khaki-clad soldiers.
The second half moves more slowly than the first. We find ourselves willing the sycophantic, cowardly, entourage to kill this despot; Caligula himself seems to be pleading to be released from his self-created hell as he continues to push through limits that no-one will set him.
Peter Coleman-Wright makes a creeping entrance as Caligula and his transformation into a skimpily and sequin clad goddess Venus is notably good. Yvonne Howard makes a strong and loyal Caesonia and Christopher Ainslie, the slave-eunuch Helicon, sings a good counter-tenor.
Light-hearted, feel-good entertainment this is not, but it is well staged and bloodily entertaining.
By Rachel Phillips
Caligula has five remaining performances at the London Coliseum on 29 and 31 May, 7, 9 and 14 June. Tickets from £10. Image by Johan Persson.