Caligula and Salome


 The opera Caligula by German composer Detlev Glantert (until now unknown to me), based on Albert Camus’ 1944 play of the same name, was stunningly performed by English National Opera. The story depicts the mental deterioration of Roman Emperor Caligula after the death of his sister and lover Drusilla, which to him means death (and life) to be senseless and unavoidable, thus urging him to seek the impossible, i.e. the moon as a symbol to transcend the world. Consequently, Caligula elevates himself to god-like status, murders subjects and friends at will, but finds himself in the end lonely and destitute, after he strangles his devoted wife Caesonia. His inevitable death at the hands of the remaining population ends a deranged and disillusioned life whose murderous and self-elevating excesses could not replace the love of his ever-present dead sister.

A fabulous production with ingenious props – theatre seats depicting a Roman theatre or just mirroring ENO’s auditorium – where personages of all kinds appear and disappear allow the director to never change the scene. The singing was especially impressive by Yvonne Howard as Caesonia and Helicon, Caligula’s devoted slave, but Peter Coleman-Wright as the protagonist took some time to find his full convincing form, especially impressive when he appeared as Venus and thereafter when his loneliness and solitude become apparent, also to himself.

The music is quite fabulous, thundering dramatically and waxing lyrically in a rare combination. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a very well-disposed orchestra in a remarkable performance. It is too bad that the auditorium was only half-filled: the first time in my 4-year London opera experience when the auditorium was not close to sold out.

 

Richard Strauss’ Salome was (once more, I heard the same production a couple of years ago) played in its full splendour to a sellout crowd at the Royal Opera House. This is a stunning production, mostly played out in the dingy downstairs of Herodes’ banquet hall, where the downstairs is a mixture of a soldiers brothel, psychiatry ward and gym changing room. The costumes and surroundings are 1920’s, with depravity and perversion everywhere, from Herodes’ guests, his wife Herodias, his stepdaughter Salome, down to the soldiers and cleaning personnel guarding the pit in which Jokanaan is kept.

Angela Denoke sings this excruciating role, from the bored nymph to the lust-filled teen, to the shunned sexual being, the revengeful woman who gives in to Herodes’ own lust just in order to get her way with Jokanaan. Denoke masters all this in a really convincing manner, both as a singer and as an actress. Her dance of seven veils is stylized by her floating in various costumes through seven sequential rooms, with Herodes slobbering at her heels – and eventually getting her at the end, just for her to elicit his oath that as a favour she can have anything she wants – which turns out to be Jokanaan’s severed head, in order for her to be able to eventually kiss him, which he has so violently refused when alive. Jokanaan’s attempts to make her repent her sins and seek god come to naught, as she is only interested in his body, his hair, his mouth. Herodes’ attempts to deflect her prize, not because of his humanity, but because he is afraid that if he has the prophet killed something horrible will befall him, are in vain, Salome insists and holds him to his oath, urged on by her mother who had been reviled by the prophet for any depravity imaginable. Good singing also by Stig Andersen as the weak, lustfull Herodes, very convincing Rosalind Plowright as Herodias – and very strong Egils Silins as John the Baptist (Jokanaan) who cannot be tempted by the bodily charms of Salome, but instead curses her before retreating into his tomb-like cell.

Andris Nelsons conducted a very lively Orchestra, playing out the dramatic scenes in all their might. Very impressive the executioner who brings up Jokanaan’s head naked, but splattered full with blood, part of which will be deposited on Salome’s gown. In the end, when Herodes in horror sees Salome kissing the severed head of the prophet and orders her to be killed (“man toete dieses Weib”!), he breaks her back in one snap.

A very remarkable performance!

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