Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Georgia Jarman as Roxana and Mariusz Kwiecień as Król Roger [Photo © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.]
02 May 2015

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Georgia Jarman as Roxana and Mariusz Kwiecień as Król Roger

Photos © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.

 

Meditative and metaphysical rather than inherently dramatic, the work is perhaps more an oratorio — or orchestral poem with voices — than an ‘opera’; but it references some significant operatic predecessors, from Debussy to Janacek, from Wagner to Britten. One might describe it as Death in Venice meets Salome: Apollo and Dionysus battle for the eponymous monarch’s heart and soul, and a wandering zealot stirs a ruler to destabilising self-scrutiny, while the woman whom the King loves embraces the decadent abandon preached by her husband’s nemesis. But, there is also a Nietzschean dimension — a chain stretching from Mann, through Schopenhauer and Wilde, to Wagner, all the way back to Hamlet.

Director Kasper Holten and his designer, Steffen Aarfing, adopt a shrewd, at times restrained approach, more cerebral than sybaritic, as they translate 12 th-century, Christian Sicily to the modern age. We begin in absolute darkness and then, as suggestive fragments emerge from the orchestra, a huge head is gradually illuminated. Initially, the ochre tints and ashen shadows of the outsize phrenological model evoke a medieval shroud, but as the light sharpens (Lighting Design, Jon Clark) a troubled modern mind-set emerges, the chiselled planes suggestive of introspective agonies. At times the eyes of this huge emblem of human consciousness seem closed, impenetrable; then transient shadows transform the concealing lids into infinite, inexhaustible black holes. Choral voices are heard, intoning archaic Byzantine chants. The supplemented ROH Chorus were on superb form throughout the evening, and in these opening bars the dark pulsations of the bass lines wonderfully conjured the spirituality of Eastern European Orthodox Church.

©BC20150428_KROL_ROGER_RO_391 ALAN EWING AS ARCHBISHOP, MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER, SAIMIR PIRGU AS SHEPHERD, GEORGIA JARMAN AS ROXANA (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER.pngAlan Ewing as Archbishop, Mariusz Kwiecień as Król Roger, Saimir Pirgu as Shepherd, and Georgia Jarman as Roxana

Whose head do we see? God’s? Król Roger’s? The King, whose arrival heralds a shift to more anarchic harmonic worlds, appears to bow in worship before the monstrous cranium, exposed in the centre of a curving Coliseum; all eyes are upon him.

Król Roger is, like Aschenbach, a man for whom Classical order has outweighed Romantic indulgence; just as Mann’s protagonist has practised a perfectionist fastidiousness, paralysed by scruples and distaste, so the Sicilian King has governed his country with meticulous propriety: a patron of intellectual and scientific advancement, the guardian of social order and religious certainty. As his chief councillor and counsellor Edrisi — an Arabian sage — advises, it is many a year since the King’s lips have sought the sensuous embrace of his Queen, Roxana. But, subversive strains linger beneath the ceremonious inscrutability, and the appearance of a ‘Shepherd’ — dressed here, in contrast to the sombre greys of the King and his citizens, in a sensuous white and orange silks — initiates an internal battle within the King’s heart and mind between the gods of restraint and excess.

Frequently — as is the case with Britten’s operas — Szymanowksi’s Król Roger has been interpreted as autobiographical. And there is surely no doubt that the composer’s own homosexuality informs his depiction of the attraction which the monarch feels towards the enigmatic mystic who destabilises his kingdom and his soul. But, the conflict is played out in a sociological context too; for initially the community condemn the Shepherd as a heretic. Holten masses the dully attired community first to the left, then right, of the stage, and their urgent interjections admonishing their King to punish the interloper are reminiscent of the unsympathetic blood-cries of the Borough posse which pursues another outsider to his death.

In Act 2 the colossal head swivels so that we can see its clinical entrails: now we are inside the monarch’s own mind, and understand that the opera is a drama of interiority. The split levels and spiralling staircases suggest the cold control of intellectual imperatives, but there is also a red velvet curtain draped across a life-shaft which descends to Hadean realms: an Underworld of repressed desires. Aarfing’s construction has the practical advantage of raising the soloists above the orchestral maelstrom; but, its divisions and layers also convey the stillness and tension as Król Roger awaits the arrival of Shepherd in his inner sanctum.

In a basement Hades, male dancers in nude body-suits and black masks stretch and arc; we have traded the metaphysical mannequins of Giorgio di Chirico for the fantastical fetishism of Hieronymus Bosch. As Król Roger descends the coiling stairway which leads to these nether-regions, the paper lantern which, like a pendant moon, evoking an objective cosmos, had illuminated Roger’s inner world, is disturbingly transmuted into a penetrating eye-ball which fixes its unflinching gaze on the protagonist.

One might argue that the whole opera is a slow-motion re-enactment of Aschenbach’s Bacchanalian dream. Holten shows us that the surrender to chaotic, Dionysian impulses is not without danger; for Roger is violently assaulted — the Shepherd is a dark aspect of his own psyche for which the King is callously punished.

The final Act begins with a video projection (Video Designs, Luke Halls) of the prophetic head, which disintegrates and slumps into a funeral pyre: the message is clear — to follow the Shepherd is to embrace death. And, into the flames, the Chorus throw the limp piles of books and papers which litter the Coliseum. Initially Szymanowski and his co-librettist Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz had devised a finale of Schopenhauerian renunciation: King Roger was to have embraced the Shepherd’s ideology but Szymanowski himself revised the work to have the King remain alone, accepting the veracity of the Shepherd’s words while resisting their seductive and suicidal lure.

Holten gives us a blinding flash of light, as Król Roger heralds a new sun and a new dawn: he acknowledges the Shepherd’s truths but retains his independent integrity. Silhouetted against the apocalyptic blast, Roger has sufficient strength to withstand the dissolution of Wildean aestheticism and decadence.

Much depends on the musical and dramatic impact of the protagonist and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is an experienced exponent of this role, having previously embodied the troubled King in productions in Sante Fe, Paris and Madrid. Kwiecień’s appealing baritone was glorious and captivating. Holten informed us before Act 3 that the singer was suffering from a cold and was tiring, but would continue; perhaps one could detect a slight waning of brightness in Act 2 and towards the close of Act 3, but there was really nothing to make one feel short-changed. Kwiecień’s dramatic commitment was unwavering, and any sense of vocal strain perfectly reflected the psychological anguish of the King. Disrobed, distressed and vulnerable, in the final Act Kwiecień revealed all of Król Roger’s dualities and divisions.

As his Queen, American soprano Georgia Jarman’s free, joyful outpourings floated lyrically around the auditorium, like a rapturous reverie. She employed a judicious vibrato and was able to embody both a sensuous and maternal personae, reminiscent of Janačék’s Emilia Marty/Elina Makropoulos.

The role of the Shepherd — a multi-partite Britten-esque Traveller cum Gondolier — first prisoner, then prophet, then, exchanging colourful silks for sharp suits, confident leader — is an immensely challenging one. Effectively he embodies different aspects of Król Roger’s psyche. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu was more than equal to the vocal and interpretative demands, soaring powerfully in sustained lyrical outpourings, at once miraculous, mysterious and malicious.

If Pirgu’s Shepherd was the embodiment of androgynous hedonism, then Kim Begley’s Edrisi was the quintessence of conscious rationalism. The British tenor made a strong dramatic impact, as did Alan Ewing (Archbishop) and Agnes Zwierko (Deaconess).

This production was the first meeting of minds of the ROH’s Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, and Music Director Antonio Pappano; if Holten’s approach was at times elliptical, then Pappano was impassioned and mesmerising in the pit. But, I wondered about his decision to conduct without a baton: there was much energised surging and broad sweeping gesturing — which did not preclude precision in encouraging wonderful solos from horns, clarinet, oboes and others; but in an opera that can seem like slow-motion Pelléas et Mélisande — the orientalist harmonies and modes also recall Debussy — perhaps a crisper pulse may at times be required to complement the sensuous swells and coloristic etchings.

Overall, though, the musical and dramatic values of this production are convincing and rewarding. It is a pity that there are only five more performances in this run: catch one if you can.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Król Roger II, Mariusz Kwiecień; Shepherd, Saimir Pirgu; Roxana, Georgia Jarman; Edrisi, Kim Begley, Archbishop, Alan Ewing; Deaconess, Agnes Zwierko; Director, Kasper Holten; Conductor, Antonio Pappano; Designs, Steffen Aarfing; Lighting design, Jon Clark; Video design, Luke Halls; Choreography, Cathy Marston; Dramaturg, John Lloyd Davies; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Friday, 1 May 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):