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Karol Szymanowski
02 Aug 2009

Paris: King Roger Goes Hollywood

Paris Opera seems to posit the question: Does anyone completely understand what Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is about?

Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger)

King Roger II: Mariusz Kwiecien (les 18, 20, 23, 28 juin et 2 juillet) / Scott Hendricks (les 25 et 30 juin); Roxana: Olga Pasichnyk / Margarita de Arellano (25 juin); Edrisi: Stefan Margita; The Shepherd: Eric Cutler; The Archbishop: Wojtek Smilek: An Abbess: Jadwiga Rappe. Opéra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus.Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Stage director: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Video: Denis Guéguin. Choreography: Saar Magal. Lighting: Felice Ross.

Above: Karol Szymanowski

 

And really, given the splendid musical effects, does anyone care?

This knotty dramatic piece with a loosely wandering libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, has largely languished on the sidelines of world stages until very recent years. I recall a very credible mounting in Amsterdam only a few years ago, in which the producers honored the rather mythical, metaphorical and medieval tone of the text, with settings and costumes that seemed grounded in the milieu of 12th-century Christian King Roger II of Sicily, who is enlightened by a mysterious young shepherd as the embodiment of pagan ideals.

Not surprisingly, the innovative (some would say ‘willfully provocative’) Paris Opera was having none of that, and the famous (some would say ‘infamous’) stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski, abetted by set and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak set the diffuse action in the world of Hollywood (or any-other-’wood) glitterati.

At rise we see what seems to be a large, empty swimming pool, with a dead woman’s body floating in the down right corner (we are able to view the corpse thanks to a Plexiglas wall on the deep end). Shades of Sunset Boulevard!

But it is not Norma Desmond who appears poolside but rather a scantily clad King Roger II and Roxana, as bored rich people killing time in their respective chaises. The garrulous archbishop here is a kvetching man-servant. The chorus, in spangled and twinkling evening wear, become complacent revelers at a de rigueur entertainment industry social event. And the pagan Shepherd (in quite a brilliant invention) is a gender challenged street person.

The dueling forces on display do not seem so much “Christian versus Profane,” but the “Have’s” contrasted with the “Have Not’s”. For our hero does not seem to start out worshiping Christ so much as Mammon. The duo of Warlikowski and Szcsesniak have succeeded quite spectacularly here by injecting vivid theatrical life into what could have been a thudding, pretentious oratorio. The fine character work served to create flesh and blood creatures out of the writers’ fuzzy symbolic figures.

Felice Ross’s wonderfully detailed gobos and lighting effects contributed mightily in isolating images, and suggesting a supernatural effect that informs the proceedings throughout the night. Denis Guéguin devised stage-filling video effects that somehow managed to illuminate the dramatic moments without overpowering the actors. As the chorus members (excellently tutored by Winfried Maczewski) posed snootily behind a scrim, the use of a hand held video-cam that traced the torsos and projected the choristers on a huge screen, ‘up close and personal’ from toe to crown was a clever invention.

Warlikowski carries the arching metaphor of the initially near-naked Roger who dons the trappings — and consequences — of fame to a natural conclusion, as he has the protagonist once again shucking his tuxedo and material encumbrances in time for the closing introspective musings. The King’s final paean to the rising sun is heartbreaking as a denuded Roger hallucinates even as the body of Roxana floats in the pool behind him, an eerie directorial invention that evokes the drug- and booze- prompted tragedy of many such a Hollywood gathering.

Only the final entrance of the Shepherd is grossly miscalculated, dressed as he is in a Minnie Mouse head and accessories, and joined by a small band of similarly got-up children whom he proceeds to lead in morning calisthenics. (No, I am not making this up.) Whether meant to be a goof on Euro Disney or popular culture, it misfires badly and takes us totally out of the otherwise stunning conclusion.

If you are going to spend almost one third of an opera looking at an unclothed baritone, you really can’t do better than the buff and handsome Mariusz Kwiecien. And he sings, too! Mr. Kwiecien is a known commodity at all the major houses (opera-, that is, not bath-), and he deserves the solid reputation he has built. The voice is warm, secure, and rings out in the large Bastille hall. Sometimes, perhaps a bit too much.

Since my first encounter with this world-class baritone was at a beautiful recital of Polish songs in an intimate hall in Warsaw, I was wowed not only by his command of the dramatic content of the text, but also by the fine gradations of interpretative effects. In the opera house, Mariusz is no less engaging, but his vocalizing at times seems more geared to producing quantities of booming sound. His artistry is always in evidence, to be sure, and his more hushed phrases were always intense, present, and affecting; but I thought that his winning performance might have benefited even more by occasionally moderating his volume at full throttle.

He was well-partnered by the supremely musical Roxana from Olga Pasichnyk. This is a fairly soft-grained voice for the role (think Cotrubas at her finest), and there were full orchestral phrases when I longed for more heft or point in the sound (maybe our baritone could loan her some!). But the public loves this artist and for good reason. She commands the stage, gives 100%, and, especially at the upper end of her instrument, pours out melting, limpid, silvery phrase after silvery phrase.

Even in this splendid top-tier company, the star turn of the night was indisputably that of Eric Cutler’s superbly sung Shepherd. Not only is this a substantial lyric tenor that ‘speaks’ throughout the range thanks to a secure technique and somewhat bright focus, but the voice is also capable of carrying out dramatic intentions with meaningful deployment of a good variety of colors.

Add to that his imposing presence and his willingness to collaborate with the (okay, slightly wacko) director, Cutler forges a believable yet fey characterization that is part Dr. Frankenfurter and part Liza-on-a-bender (dig the nail polish). One of the season’s truly memorable performances. Rounding out the exceptional cast, Stefan Margita was the solid-voiced Edrisi, and Wojtek Smilek’s Archbishop made a substantial and favorable impression.

Overseeing the proceedings from the podium, conductor Kazushi Ono paced his cast and orchestra with fine results. This haunting, melodic score with its oriental influences, has hints of Scriabin and Strauss, but asserts its own identity and stakes a claim as a masterpiece. What the libretto may lack in cogency and interest is more than compensated by the heartfelt, brilliantly scored music. Maestro Ono seemed to revel in each and every orchestral detail and effect, and he drew as fine a performance from his instrumentalists as I have heard from the Paris pit.

Musical excellence, coupled with a challenging mise en scène and a cast that was certainly up to that challenge, King Roger proved a fitting, high quality, love-it-or-hate-it-you-can’t-look-away-from-it finale to the Mortier regime. The King is dead. Long live the King.

James Sohre

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