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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
King Roger - opera in three acts Op. 46 (1918-24)
Libretto: Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, composer
Roger II, King of Sicily - Wojtek Drabowicz (bar)
Roxana - Olga Pasiecznik (sop)
Edrisi, Arab Sage - Krzystof Szmyt (ten)
Shepherd - Piotr Beczala (ten)
Archbishop - Romuald Tesarowicz (bass)
Deaconess - Stefania Toczyska (mezzo)
All Polacca Youth Choir/Sabina Wlodarska
Chorus and Orchestra of Polish National Opera/Jacek Kaspszyk
rec. Teatr Wielki - Opera Narodowa, Warszawa, 27-29 Jan 2003. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 131-2 [79.11]

Karol Szymanowski was one of the outstanding composers of the 20th century. As early as 1912 he wrote: ‘The thought of composing an opera fills my mind with great intensity.’ In the years after the First World War he fulfilled his destiny with the composition of his masterpiece, King Roger (Warsaw, 1926). This is a rich and evocative score, which transfers atmospherically to the stage. The story is borrowed from ‘The Bacchae of Euripides’, and tells of a handsome, mysterious shepherd who is also a mystical prophet. In fact he is disguised, being the god Dionysus, who comes from India to a Sicilian court during the 12th century.

At first the Christian King Roger resists his message, but the queen and the people are captivated by the stranger, who leads them away. Whereas in the Euripides original the King is destroyed, in Szymanowski’s opera he becomes converted and yields to the pagan beliefs. For this sensual approach is fundamental to both the drama and the music, with vocal and orchestral writing that can be described as both opulent and colourful. This is Poland’s finest opera, a metaphysical work in the manner of Parsifal, with a richly chromatic musical style that owes a good deal to Richard Strauss.

All these abundant strengths can be experienced in this new recording from Warsaw, which is expertly conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. The pacing and balancing of the music never fails to beguile the ear, and the recorded sound from the very beginning has precisely the depth and richness that Szymanowski demands.

The cast is idiomatically chosen, with a native command of Polish that brings a confident delivery of the often ecstatic vocal lines. All the singers sound well in their roles, and if there is a criticism it is that some of the ensemble scenes might convey rather more intensity.

The baritone Wojtek Drabowicz is when necessary a commanding figure, though the role requires more than that dimension, of course. Olga Pasiecznik is a sensitive Roxana, both ardent and vulnerable, while the mysterious shepherd Pastyerz is also well sung by Piotr Beczala. It is unlikely that international superstars will take up this opera, particularly if it is to be sung in Polish, so this new recording is an important document and sets a benchmark standard.

There is a well produced booklet containing full texts and multi-lingual translations, plus a useful synopsis and introductory essay.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Rob Barnett


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