2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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King Roger

Royal Opera at Covent Garden, May 6

John Allison

So, just what is Karol Szymanowski\'s Byzantine Sicily-inspired mysterium all about? As Paul Kildea wrote two months ago here in his introduction to King Roger, far from being a static oratorio in which nothing happens-as some like to claim-this is an opera about everything, one of the few operas that confronts the problems of making humankind whole. Any perceived (or real) lack of exterior action is balanced by animated internal drama, and little indeed seems to have been left out of a piece that embraces the conflict between Christianity and pagan culture as much as the tension between Bacchus and Apollo, and whose story is evoked in music where East meets West, and fleshed out in drama where Euripides is crossed with Nietzsche.

In spite-or perhaps because-of this, King Roger poses unanswerable questions that no performance should attempt to resolve, and the most obvious shortcoming of Covent Garden\'s long-overdue and very welcome first production of the work is that it tries too hard to supply some answers. Not for the first time, the director Kasper Holten showed that he likes to semaphore certainties to his audience when mystery is suggested, yet so much else in his production was an intelligent and sensitive elucidation of Szymanowski\'s world that it became easy to overlook these failings and revel in the strong performance he shaped together with his ROH colleague Antonio Pappano in their first collaboration.

In 1925, the year before King Roger\'s Warsaw premiere, Szymanowski said that no matter where Ravel looked for inspiration he remained one the of most fascinating representatives of the genius of his countrymen. These same words could be applied with equal justification to Szymanowski himself-a composer who sought stimulation far and wide, transforming these impulses into music that was very much his own and even seemed to belong to the soil from which he had grown. This is certainly true of King Roger, even if a crude Rachmaninov-meets-Ravel tag can be pinned to its sound-world. Though Szymanowski was far from being the only northern artist drawn to southern Italy, Sicily was a special inspiration for the heady opulence of his biggest works-not least King Roger-that has led him to be viewed as not so much a late Romantic as ‘the last Romantic\'. He was more than that, of course, and his eventual engagement with folk music and other national elements led to an exuberant, personal style that marks him out as a questing figure very much of his time.

King Roger is normally seen as the climax of his phase sparked by travels to Sicily and North Africa before World War I, the last in a succession of lush masterpieces characterized by ecstatic sonorities and exotically decadent subject matter, sometimes homoerotic in gesture-the major works of this Mediterranean ‘middle period\' include the Violin Concerto No. 1, the Rumi-inspired Symphony No. 3 (‘Song of the Night\'), the Four Songs (to texts by Tagore) and the Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin (to texts by Roger\'s librettist, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz). But though the Symphony No. 3 casts its cloying shadow over the first two acts of King Roger, the somewhat craggier Stabat Mater seemed to come through in Act 3-just one of the points made by Pappano\'s magnificent conducting of the piece, and one I had not been conscious of before. Clearly, there is more to the Shepherd\'s lines at the end of Act 1 (‘In the emerald meadows of my mountains back home wanders the good Shepherd, searching his for herds that strayed\') than the obvious Christian symbolism; the pantheistic call of the mountains is one Szymanowski was soon to heed as well, and the Stabat Mater is an early example of the healthy, vigorous mountain music he was to write in the Tatras. Pappano showed himself to be not just at home with the idiom but completely in love with it: let\'s hope we will soon hear him conduct the composer\'s orchestral music. Here his achievements were an unusually taut drawing together of the work\'s strands and a Beechamesque panache in his command of the score\'s colours. Equally, he was able to call on Wagnerian experience in a static work that owes something of its mystery-play nature to Parsifal and some of its subject-matter to Tristan (though there is nothing Wagnerian about King Roger\'s striking compactness, the whole work lasting less than 90 minutes).

King Roger has long been one of those early 20th-century operas that has held a place in the affections of connoisseurs rather than on the stage, but a recent surge in productions-from Santa Fe to St Petersburg-has changed all that. One factor common to many is the emergence of the charismatic Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as today\'s ruling King Roger. Kwiecień\'s portrayal was undeniably strong and suitably tormented-indeed, almost Shakespearian-and he sang with enough sculpted power to prove that he has earned Roger\'s musical crown, even if it must be admitted that his baritone lacks the complete warmth that the late Wojtek Drabowicz brought so memorably to the part. The Shepherd-a big role, reflecting the fact that Szymanowski\'s projected first title for the opera was Pasterz rather than Król Roger-ought to look as good as he sounds, hardly the design of the average operatic tenor, so Saimir Pirgu fitted the role well; if his performance was short on subtlety, sometimes suggesting a self-satisfied singer more than an evangelist of seduction, at least he sang tirelessly in a challenging part. Queen Roxana may be easier to cast, even allowing for her spectacular music, but that should not diminish the achievement of Georgia Jarman in her Covent Garden debut, singing with rhapsodic voluptuousness in her second-act song and bringing a bejewelled quality of tone to her coloratura that was close to ideal. Kim Begley\'s suitably sinister Edrisi was slightly underpowered, but Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko were strong as the Archbishop and Deaconess and Renato Balsadonna\'s chorus sang with all the potency called for in this unique score.

Holten\'s staging was more successful than many in avoiding the pitfalls of the work, and one of the most convincing in stressing its modernity. Despite the potential sumptuousness of its original 12th-century setting, King Roger is clearly not something purely decorative, but a work of modern psychological power that in its multi-layered fascination seems to sit most naturally alongside Duke Bluebeard\'s Castle (Szymanowski and Bartók were almost exact contemporaries). In exploring the influence of Dionysus as a type-figure lurking within, Holten seemed to be suggesting that the story might be King Roger\'s dream or at least taking place entirely in his head. With the help of his set designer, Steffen Aarfing, he gave us a huge, stage-high head that in the first act looked like the giant statue of a dictator-the sort of thing that would become a feature of the socrealizm (socialist realist art) that engulfed Poland little more than a decade after the composer\'s death. In Act 2 it turned to reveal the rooms of the palace and suggest the compartmentalization of Roger\'s psyche, with books stacked at the top, and male bodies writhing down below. Was it all a bit homophobic? Cathy Marston\'s choreography was certainly a little simplistic-and about as Bacchic as a Palermo pilates class-and one of a few miscalculations in a piece that is admittedly tricky to stage. The costumes evoked Szymanowski\'s era, not only successfully bringing the ancient story into modern times but helping to underline the work\'s warning of where too much Dionysian behaviour might lead-scenes of book-burning and the smouldering rubble in Act 3 were a reminder of the rise of fascism during the composer\'s later years (he died just two years before the Nazis invaded his homeland). Perhaps this is indeed something Szymanowski felt with foreboding, even ahead of events in the 1930s. It would help to explain why he altered the end of the opera as sketched out by Iwaszkiewicz to steer it away from the celebration of unfettered chaos-hence the inconclusive verbal climax of the libretto, while Roger\'s final hymn to the rising sun suggests that he has been purified by his experiences and has acquired a strong, Apollonian lucidity. The bright, audience-blinding light (one of the less original touches in Jon Clark\'s lighting design) at this moment was another misfire, coming so late that it had the effect mainly of being a distraction from the final few bars of the work\'s abrupt C major apotheosis-and all for underlining the simple point of the darkness-to-light trajectory of a performance that had begun with the lights completely extinguished.                                                                     


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