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?
The mysteries and myths surrounding Mozart’s Requiem Mass - left unfinished at his death and completed by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr - abide, reinvigorated and prolonged by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as directed on film by Miloš Forman. The origins of the work’s commission and composition remain unknown but in our collective cultural and musical consciousness the Requiem has come to assume an autobiographical role: as if Mozart was composing a mass for his own presaged death.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.
The tale of a Syrian donkey driver. And, yes, the donkey stole the show! The competition was intense — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Grosses Festspielhaus in full production regalia for starters.
Paris Opera seems to posit the question: Does anyone completely understand what Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is about?
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.