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

Bampton Classical Opera: Bride & Gloom at St John's Smith Square

Last week the Office of National Statistics published figures showing that in the UK the number of women getting married has fallen below 50%.

La traviata at the Palais Garnier

The clatter of information was overwhelmed by soaring bel canto, Verdi’s domestic tragedy destroyed by director Simon Stone, resurrected by conductor Michele Mariotti, a tour de force for South African soprano Pretty Yende.

San Jose Pops the Cork With Fledermaus

Opera San Jose vivaciously kicked off its 2019–2020 season with a heady version of Strauss’ immortal Die Fledermaus that had all the effervescence of vintage champagne.

Tempestuous Francesca da Rimini opens Concertgebouw Saturday matinee series

Two Russian love letters to the tragic thirteenth century noblewoman Francesca da Rimini inaugurated the Saturday matinee series at the Concertgebouw.

Immortal Beloved: Beethoven Festival at Wigmore Hall

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park 2019

Lyric Opera of Chicago presented this year’s annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park. The evening’s program featured a range of selections from works to be presented in the 2019–2020 season along with arias and scenes from other notable and representative operas.

Prom 74: Uplifting Beethoven from Andrew Manze and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover

Ceremony, drama and passion: this Beethoven Night by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover under their Chief Conductor Andrew Manze had all three and served them up with vigour and a compelling freshness, giving Prommers at this eve-of-Last-Night concert an exciting and uplifting evening.

Prom 69: Elena Stikhina’s auspicious UK debut in a dazzling Czech Philharmonic concert

Rarely can any singer have made such an unforgettable UK debut in just twelve minutes of music. That was unquestionably the case with the Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, who in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, sang with such compelling stage magnetism and with a voice that has everything you could possibly want.

Prom 68: Wagner Abend - Christine Goerke overwhelms as Brünnhilde

Wagner Nights at the Proms were once enormously popular, especially on the programmes of Sir Henry Wood. They have become less so, perhaps because they are simply unfashionable today, but this one given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht steered clear of the ‘bleeding chunk’ format which was usually the norm. It was still chunky, but in an almost linear, logical way and benefited hugely from being operatic (when we got to the Wagner) rather than predominantly orchestral.

Prom 65: Danae Kontora excels in Mozart and Strauss

On the page this looked rather a ‘pick-and-mix’ sort of Prom from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who was making his Proms debut. In the event, it was not so much a Chinese take-away as a Michelin-starred feast for musical gourmands.

British Youth Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Stendhal (as recorded in his Life of Rossini) was not a fan of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, complaining that after the first few bars of the Introduzione he was already suffering from a ‘faint feeling of nausea’, a condition which ‘never entirely dissipated, [recurring] periodically throughout the opera, and with increasing violence’.

La traviata at the Arena di Verona

There is esoteric opera — 16,500 spectators at this year’s Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, and there is pop opera — upwards of 500,000 spectators for the opera festival at the Arena di Verona, one quarter of them for an over-the-top new production of La traviata, designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner brings Benvenuto Cellini to the Proms

Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini is quite rarity on UK stages. Covent Garden last performed it in 1976 and English National Opera performed it for the first time in 2014 (in Terry Gilliam's riotous production), and yet the opera never quite goes away either.

Prom 58: varied narratives from the BBCSSO and Ilan Volkov

There are many ways and means to tell a story: through prose, poetry, sounds, pictures, colours, movement.

Prom 53: Elgar’s emotionally charged Music Makers

British music with an English and strong European accent marked this Prom featuring three well-wrought works, stylistically worlds apart but each characterised by a highly individual musical personality.

Scoring a Century: British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre

‘It is well known that Eisler was a master of the art of self-contradiction, using non-sequitur, change of tack and playing devil’s advocate in a brilliantly ironic way in an attempt to look at a problem from every angle, to expose it fully to the gaze of his interlocutor. For an ordinary person to take part in this, let alone keep up with the pace and fully appreciate the wide range of references, which his enormous reading threw out, was wonderfully stimulating, and exhausting.’

Prom 55: Handel's Jephtha

‘For many it is the masterpiece among his oratorios.’

Opera della Luna's HMS Pinafore sails the seas at Wilton's Music Hall

The original production of HMS Pinafore opened at the Opera Comique in London on 25th May 1878 and ran for an astonishing 571 performances. Opera della Luna’s HMS Pinafore, which has been cresting the operatic oceans for over twenty years now, has notched up almost as many performances.

Spectra Ensemble present Treemonisha at Grimeborn

‘We see him now as one of the most important creators of his generation, certainly comparable to Schoenberg.’ T.J. Anderson, who reconstructed the score of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera, Treemonisha, for its first staged production in 1972, was probably rather over-enthusiastic in his assessment.

Fortieth Anniversary Gala of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro

Earlier this month I reported from the Macerata Opera Festival – a largely Italian affair frequented by few foreigners. One week later I attended the 40th anniversary gala of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, about 100 km north in the same region of Le Marche and a prominent stop on the international circuit. One one hears much English, French, German and Japanese, and the printed program features a long list of non-Italian financial sponsors.

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):