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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.

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