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?
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
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.