So on Tuesday I went to see the first of two operas for the week, Caligula at the English National Opera (ENO). I was enticed by a fantastic deal on stalls tickets which were knocked down from £60 to £20, so I nabbed a seat in row A which essentially meant I was sat on top of the orchestra and virtually on the stage! For me this was perhaps a little too close, but it was the first time i'd sat in the front row at the opera, or even in a theatre full stop, so it had to be done. What I got was a close up of a pretty mad opera accompanied by some pretty intense music, and I have to say I think I enjoyed it, which is probably more than can be said for the poor chap sat behind me who had an electronic device malfunction at curtain up that resulted in him being heckled out of the auditorium....oooops.
Caligula is a very new opera, and this ENO production was it's UK premier. I believe Caligula was a Roman Emperor back in the day, and judging my the way he's portrayed here he was a completely insane megalomaniac. As there are plenty of completely insane megalomaniac political leaders still around today (no, i'm not thinking of anyone in the Tory Party, but I am thinking of the likes of President Assad of Syria) it meant that the subject matter was very timely. It's based on a play that was written in the 1940s around a time when some of the world's nastiest dictators had either been recently disposed of or where on the rise and rise following the end of World War II. Caligula charts the total breakdown of it's lead character into more and more sinister states of total madness as he and his state begin to fall apart around him. I some ways it all unfolds in a pretty predictable fashion with our lead character making increasingly ridiculous demands of those around him (him develops an unhealthy obsession with trying to obtain the moon for example) and becoming increasingly vicious and brutal to those in his inner circle. At times this is portrayed in a pretty stark fashion, especially in the case of the explicitly implied rape of one of his female aides. The whole opera culminates in Caligula being lynched by his own people, but even then he can't except his defeat and rises up battered and bloody to proclaim he's still alive....Total nutcase.
There were elements of Caligula the reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's version of Stephen King's The Shining. I think the music played an element as it's sinister, at times noisy, tunes conjured up images of Jack Torrance and his unsuccessful stint as hotel caretaker (some of the music in the film was by Stravinsky i believe...It was in a recent BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Barbican at any rate). Also I think some of the bizarre characters who filled the stage from time to time helped with the comparison. At one point we had people dressed as Kermit the Frog, Micky Mouse (a generic version so as to not be sued by the Disney) and a Ronald McDonaldesk clown. Added to this were some rather worse for wear cabaret dancers and various other charters wearing animal masks. It all reminded me of some of the less welcome guests at the Overlook Hotel, and added to a similar feeling of unease and intensity as that experienced in the film. I think the odd characters were supposed to say something about Caligula's deluded state of mind, but I couldn't be sure. They were unsettling at any rate, but then i'm never a fan of masks in that respect.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised by Caligula. I wouldn't have gone at all had it not been for the reduced price tickets, but i'm glad I did. Once again I find myself warming to the ENO and i'm now pretty excited about their 2012/13 season. I think it's a pretty tough job to successfully stage some modern opera, or even modern takes on classics sometimes. But I think ENO are doing well in this area, I liked Caligula because it was a bit odd and different from a lot of the other opera I've seen recently. I'll certainly be attending a few more shows at the ENO in the not too distant future.
Seat: A19, Stalls, £20 **** (Excellent view,stunning sound, but a bit too close to the stage for my liking);