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

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

Lise Davidsen: A superlative journey through the art of song

Are critics capable of humility? The answer should always be yes, yet I’m often surprised how rare it seems to be. It took the film critic of The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell, several decades to admit she had been wrong about Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a film excoriated on its release in 1960. It’s taken me considerably less time - and largely because of this astounding recital - to realise I was very wrong about Lise Davidsen.

Parsifal in Toulouse

Aurélien Bory, director of a small, avant garde theater company in Toulouse, staged a spellbinding Parsifal at the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse’s famed Orchestre National du Capitole in the pit — FYI the Capitole is Toulouse’s city hall, the opera house is a part of it.

An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

‘The world’s most acclaimed Soprano’: the programme booklet produced for Ermonela Jaho’s Wigmore Hall debut was keen to emphasise the Albanian soprano’s prestigious status, as judged by The Economist, and it was standing-room only at the Hall which was full to capacity with Jaho’s fervent fans and opera-lovers.

Parsifal in Palermo

Richard Wagner chose to finish his Good Friday opera while residing in Sicily’s Palermo, partaking of the natural splendors of its famed verdant basin, the Conca d’Oro, and reveling in the golden light of its surreal Monreale cathedral.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts a magnificent Siegfried

“Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation.” This was Richard Wagner, writing in 1854, his thoughts on Siegfried. The hero of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, has quite some journey to travel before he gets to the vision the composer described in that letter to August Roeckel. Watching Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried in this - largely magnificent - concert performance one really wondered how tortuous a journey this would be.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Rome

Shakespearean sentiments may gracefully enrich Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet, but powerful Baroque tensions enthrall us in the bel canto complexities of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Conductor Daniele Gatti’s offered a truly fine bel canto evening at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera introducing a trio of fine young artists.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali has been making waves internationally for some time. The chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is set to take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021.

Tristan und Isolde in Bologna

East German stage director Ralf Pleger promised us a Tristan unlike anything we had ever seen. It was indeed. And Slovakian conductor Jura Valčuha gave us a Tristan as never before heard. All of this just now in the most Wagnerian of all Italian cities — Bologna!


Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague

What does it feel like to be depressed? “It’s like water seeping into my heart” is how one young sufferer put it.

Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project

Puccini’s only comedy, the one act Gianni Schicchi is most often programmed with a second short piece of tragic fare, but the adventurous Pacific Opera Project has banked on a fanciful Ravel opus to sustain the mood and send the audience home with tickled ribs and gladdened hearts.

Bieito's Carmen returns to English National Opera

‘Men Behaving Badly’ wouldn’t be a bad subtitle for Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, currently being revived at ENO.

Twilight People: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin at Wigmore Hall

Twilight people: existing betwixt and between states, slipping the bounds of categorisation, on the edge of the norm.

A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

A French Affair, as this programme was called, was a promising concept on paper, but despite handsomely sung contributions from the featured soloists and much energetic direction from David Bates, it never quite translated into a wholly satisfying evening’s performance.

Eugene Onegin at Seattle

Passion! Pain! Poetry! (but hold the irony . . .)

Pow! Zap! Zowie! Wowie! -or- Arthur, King of Long Beach

If you might have thought a late 17thcentury semi-opera about a somewhat precious fairy tale monarch might not be your cup of twee, Long Beach Opera cogently challenges you to think again.

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):