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Elder conducts Lohengrin

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Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

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Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger)
09 Jan 2011

King Roger at Bregenz Festival 2009

Long-dormant operas sometimes rise to meet a new dawn only to then slink away like the creatures of the night they were doomed to be — seductive but dangerous to approach.

Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger)

King Roger: Scott Hendricks; Roxana: Olga Pasichnyk; Shepherd: Will Hartmann; Edrisi: John Graham-Hall. Wiener Symphoniker. Conductor: Mark Elder. Staged by David Pountney

Unitel Classics 702808 [DVD]

$29.99  Click to buy

Let’s call them “vampire” operas, and one such is the sole operatic creation of Karol Szymanowski, composer and co-librettist (with Jaroslaw Iwasszkiewicz) of King Roger. This DVD set’s excellent booklet essay (written by Christoph Schlüren and translated by J. Bradford Robinson) describes this as an obscure work admired mostly by “connoisseurs and composers.” That might do well to characterize all of Szymanowski’s compositions, with his violin concertos being the pieces most likely to earn an occasional recording and, less often, make a concert hall appearance. The seductiveness of King Roger lies in its texturally rich score, a silky fabric of lushness and languidity, with ecstatic outbursts. The danger is in believing, with its libretto that Schlüren tactfully describes as lacking “dramatic fibre,” that King Roger can hold the stage in any conventional sense.

For the 2009 Bregenz Festival (in its “house” venue, not at the lakeside theater used for the more spectacular stagings), David Pountney, never one for the conventional approach anyway, easily evaded this danger. Pountney’s staging affirms the oratorio nature of the libretto, with what action there is occurring on an oversized flight of white stair-steps that covers the stage practically from side to side and back to front. Szymanowski’s score employs a large chorus, and in act one they troop up and down the stairs in black gowns, surrounding and observing the action of the few key performers. With amazing lighting designs (by Fabrice Kebour), this single set serves as the varying locations of the three acts, but as the narrative never seems concerned with conventional scene setting anyway, this is no detriment.

The booklet omits any synopsis, probably because none is really needed. In a remote time, a King is warned that a stranger has appeared whose presence is both beguiling and alarming the populace. When this man, referred to as the Shepherd, is denounced by the Archbishop as a heretic and threatened with death, the King’s wife Roxana, besotted, asks that the Shepherd be given a chance to demonstrate his good intentions. Soon the Shepherd has enchanted the populace, and by act three, a Dionysian orgy is underway — where the opera suddenly ends, with King Roger apparently now under the sway of the Shepherd and the old order in tatters.

Pountney therefore begins the opera rather solemnly and simply, but things get a bit wild in act two, where the Shepard wears — and not well — the same bold red gown as Roxana. And both gowns have the same ghastly red fabric flower stitched to the front, enough to make Michael Kors’ mouth pucker in disgust (not that Kors’s mouth ever doesn’t do that). In act three, after a wild night, the King sports the dress, or what’s left of it, and quite a lot of smeared blood as well. By the time King Roger raises his blood-smeared arms to the rising sun, the orgy participants have left, leaving the once pristine white stairs sprinkled with crimson.

Thomas Hampson has recorded the title role, and his gorgeous voice and handsome but stiff presence would work well on stage, one would imagine. Here, Scott Hendricks is game, but his instrument is rather ordinary, and he looks no better in his torn gown of red than Will Hartmann does as the Shepard (Hartmann at least gets to wear it intact, though in act three he is down to a rather frightful loincloth). To ask any tenor to create a figure of surpassing physical beauty and charisma is to ask rather too much, and as much appreciated as Mr. Hartmann’s efforts should be, he doesn’t really come up to the role’s requirements. In a role of almost no character definition, Olga Pasichnyk as Roxana does get some beautiful music, especially in an exquisite second act number. Why she should be as bald, if not balder, than her King is not clear to your reviewer.

Conductor Mark Elder clearly relishes the score, as most any conductor would, and the Wiener Symphoniker plays with delicacy and passion as needed. And this is not the amplified monstrosity of an acoustic as heard in the festival’s lakeside venue. Sound and picture are both impeccable.

Those who know — or know of- the opera should surely avail themselves of a chance to see what arguable amounts to a semi-staging, although a stylish and evocative one at its best. And even if one is not among those “connoisseurs and composers” who admire the work and the composer, this is a quality production that will reward the serious opera fan.

Chris Mullins


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