It is a fact that the Colón´s season is very restricted: just eight operas when we used to have eighteen back in the Sixties. This should change, but there´s no sign of any amelioration. So the rate of turnover is miserably low, and the Colón is very far from the standard of any of the other great opera theatres of the world. The result: much lower culture.This is why each choice has great weight.
Although I found that "Caligula", by Detlef Glanert, has certain interesting aspects, I believe that it would be justified if we would still be offering the wealth of choice we had fifty years ago, but not now. Indeed, let´s circumscribe the field to Twentieth-Century German-Austrian opera, and this is what we find: the Colón has never offered full-evening operas by the two greatest German authors other than Richard Strauss: Paul Hindemith and Hans Werner Henze. And you could add other worthwhile creators such as Gottfried Von Einem, Werner Egk, Aribert Reimann.
But since "Caligula" has been on offer, let´s see what it gives us. It is based on a magnificent play by Albert Camus, profusely staged in BA, with such artists as Ignacio Quirós and Imanol Arias; in TV with Duilio Marzio and Alfredo Alcón. The French original was adapted as a German libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel. The opera has been staged only in Frankfurt (2006) and London (2012, in English, by the English National Opera). Here, of course, it was done in German. By the way, there´s a porn film on "Caligula" with no less than Malcolm MacDowell and John Gielgud!
The four acts last two hours and here it was given with one interval. The composer is a disciple of Henze and has written about a dozen operas, although he has also created symphonies, concerti and chamber music. He has a strong ear for effect, and in fact it was the orchestration that attracted me, rather than the vocal writing, generally nondescript, with the exception of an attractive introspective trio.
The libretto is convincing in the first two acts, but notoriously declines in the third and fourth. Intermittently, when it stays close to Camus, we hear violent and tremendous phrases, some of them memorable. It is a curious thing that this hideous Emperor hasn´t attracted more composers, and paradoxically the only main one I can recollect is Fauré, one of the meekest temperaments, who wrote incidental music to Alexandre Dumas´ play (that intrigues me).
The same deplorable decision I recently commented on for concerts is now applied to opera: the audience is given a miserable slim programme that only has the cast and the plot; otherwise it has to pay 50 pesos for the complete programme, in this case full of relevant information and even the libretto. It includes a revealing interview with Glanert plus the list of his operas, words by Camus himself, and especially the terrifying portrait of Caligula by Suetonius in his "Life of the twelve Caesars".
Camus stresses that his work is by no means philosophical; instead, it is a portrait of unbridled power used in the worst way. What Caligula does seems irrational to onlookers but not to him: he does what he pleases uncontained by any moral issue. Incestuous libertine, murderer to the point of genocide, nevertheless two people remain loyal: his wife Cesonia (who he will eventually strangle) and the slave Helicon. The light of Caligula´s life was his sister Drusilla, and after her death his behavior changes totally; her phantom (materialized during the opera as a fully naked figure) deambulates during the four acts. Only Quereas, the State´s Procurer, understands fully Caligula´s character: he can tell the truth to the Emperor for he knows that it makes no difference: Caligula would kill him anyway. It´s surprising that Caligula would have accepted that nickname ("little boots") instead of his true name, Caius Caesar.
The opera starts with a desperate shout for Drusilla´s death and a fortissimo 25-tone chord and finishes with the Emperor killed by a crowd; for the self-deified Caligula forgot that if he was free to act, so was his people. I have always felt what a curious destiny the Roman Empire had: at the moment of its greatest glory it had the two nastiest dictators, Caligula and Nero.
The Colón production gave us good interpreters and two valuable singers: the countertenor Martin Wölfel and the mezzosoprano Jurgita Adamonyté (debuts). Two artists from the London production learnt their parts in English: the protagonist, Peter Coleman-Wright, and Yvonne Howard as Cesonia (both made their local debut); not interesting vocally, they were very convincing as actors, although Coleman-Wright lacks the "physique du rôle": a portly fiftyish man isn´t the right image for a man who died at 30 years-old.
Argentine singers filled their parts adequately: Héctor Guedes, Víctor Torres, Fernando Chalabe and Marisú Pavón. Lara Tressens exhibited her marvelous beauty as Drusilla. Although it avoided excesses of gore and sex, I disliked the production by Benedict Andrews, taken from the English National Opera, with a boring unit-set of a Roman stadium by Ralph Myers and mostly ugly modern clothes by Alice Babidge plus voyeuristic presence of unnecessary people and scenes that were lukewarm dramatically.
No doubt the heroes of the night were the splendid Orchestra, admirably conducted by Ira Levin, and the very good choir under Miguel Martínez.
For Buenos Aires Herald