What makes tyrants tick? With Saddam’s surreal demise competing for attention with Dani Levy’s Hitler comedy, there is room in the operatic market for more tyranny than Tosca.

Detlev Glanert’s Caligula, given its world premiere in Frankfurt in October and now playing in Cologne, fits the bill. Albert Camus, whose 1940s play forms the basis of Glanert’s libretto, had contemporary despots on the brain. Glanert takes the longer view, with a pithy and powerful score that looks at the inside of the depraved Roman emperor’s mind than it does at the impact of his deeds.

Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s taut libretto is a four-part reduction of Caligula’s madness, sadism, depravity and murder. Glanert sets it for maximum effect, firmly in the German post-romantic tradition, with an ear for drama and seductive sonorities. His trump card is a slick trick of extremes. He simply carves the middle from the orchestra, omitting both violas and middle-range wind instruments. Echoes of Strauss, Mahler and Schoenberg can be heard, but the score never sounds hackneyed.

Caligula opens with a horrid shriek, as the emperor mourns the death of his beloved sister Druisilla. And it ends with an even more blood-curdling cry, as the tyrant meets his end. In the title role, Ashley Holland knows how to get maximum value from ghastly screams. But he is also utterly compelling through all his character’s violent mood-swings. Holland’s performance is charismatic, refined and committed. Glanert writes well for voices, and the Cologne cast is more than equal to the task. Counter-tenor Martin Wölfel’s creepy yet vulnerable Helicon is memorable, and Ursula Hesse von den Steinen turns the role of Caesonia, Caligula’s adoring wife, into a glittering centrepiece. Markus Stenz listens to his singers and keeps his forces well-balanced throughout.

At the end of the evening, the mood is one of stunned nausea. We have been taken into Caligula’s world of monstrous logic and cruelty. And the moral of the story? Christan Pade’s consciously spare, timeless production avoids both contemporary parallels and shocking special effects, leaving the viewer plenty of space to reflect on the text and the score. It packs a punch without arriving at an obvious point. Perhaps all tyranny is ultimately pointless. ★★★★☆

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