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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
King Roger (1926) [88.00]
Mariusz Kwieceń (baritone) – Roger; Georgia Jarman (soprano) – Roxana; Saimir Pirgu (tenor) – Shepherd; Kim Begley (tenor) – Edrisi; Alan Ewing (bass) – Archbishop; Agnes Zwierko (contralto) – Deaconess
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera Covent Garden/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. Royal Opera Covent Garden, 12 and 16 May 2015
Extras: Director’s commentary; Introduction to Król Roger; The sets; The music; Cast gallery [17.00]
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7162D [105.00]

This Blu-Ray disc enshrines the staging from the Royal Opera Covent Garden which constituted the first performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger in London for forty years. The previous production, mounted at Sadler’s Wells by the New Opera Company in 1975, was given in English translation; and for some years, until my tape got damaged by damp, I had an off-air recording of the BBC broadcast made at the time. It has to be observed that it was not a great performance, despite the advantage of immediate comprehensibility afforded by the English translation. Both the choral contribution and the orchestral playing were ragged in the extreme, and the solo singing was frequently effortful and strenuous even when the dramatic impetus and engagement was apparent. At the time there was only one audio recording of the opera available, a Polish set on atrociously manufactured LPs which one critic unkindly but accurately described as having the consistency of dog biscuits. It had plenty of atmosphere, but the resonant performance recorded in what sounded like a swimming bath blurred much of the detail in the score; and even when the recording was transferred to CD (on the sadly long-defunct Olympia label OCD303) the sense of ‘Hollywood epic’ sound remained. In due course this was superseded by Sir Simon Rattle’s set recorded in Birmingham for EMI Classics, and this has remained the benchmark reading ever since. Indeed King Roger has generally been lucky on CD, and even a less than desirably rich recording on Marco Polo (afterwards reissued on Naxos 8.660062-63) is far from inconsiderable.

At the time of the Covent Garden performances some critics bridled at the supposedly undramatic nature of Szymanowski’s opera, complaining of the poorly motivated plot and its highly problematic conclusion. This is to confuse the historical setting which the composer employed with the exorcism of his own personal demons which he explored in the work. King Roger II of Sicily was historically the monarch of a court which was open to a myriad cultural influences – Christian and Muslim alike – and his example of religious toleration shines like a beacon of enlightenment amid the superstitions of the European Middle Ages. Szymanowski expanded this historical background to include an openness to the influences of Graeco-Roman paganism and added a further layer of subtext in the undoubtedly homo-erotic fascination which the King feels for the heretical Shepherd who disturbs the peace of his realm. As far as I know, there is no evidence that the historical Roger was homosexual, but in the context of the Middle Ages this was by no means impossible. Of the English Norman and Angevin monarchs who succeeded William the Conqueror until the end of the twelfth century, at least two are implied to have been gay – William II and Richard I – and although chroniclers are reticent about the matter, such suspicions are confirmed by the fact that of the notoriously philoprogenitive monarchs of that era these two alone left no progeny to disturb the peaceful accession of their heirs. Szymanowski, himself promiscuously gay, clearly relished the opportunity to explore the matter of Roger’s sexuality in a manner which had necessarily to be obscured in 1920s Poland but which appeals directly to present-day audiences. There is however much more to the symbolism of the opera than simply a matter of sexuality, as this production makes clear.

Kasper Holten indeed makes no bones at all about updating things to the present day, portraying the action as taking place in the mind of the King whose gigantic head dominates the stage. The producer also makes no bones about employing semi-nude male dancers to highlight the nature of Szymanowski’s (and Roger’s) obsession but he is much more subtle than this. In the Second Act the massive head revolves to reveal Roger’s book-lined study, with a lower level inhabited by the naked demons of the King’s subconscious. Then, as the action proceeds, the dancers rise up to envelop Roger in an eruption of ferocious and shocking violence. Holten goes further than this, as he makes explicit in his director’s commentary; a surprising and most welcome addition to the usual method of simply appending a brief explanatory documentary, exploring both the musical and dramatic symbolism in conjunction with conductor Antonio Pappano. He explicitly links the Shepherd’s message of free love to a strain of anti-intellectualism which culminates in the burning during the Third Act of the books the demons have taken from Roger’s study. This turns the Shepherd into a Fascist fanatic whose protestations of love and nature are entirely self-serving as a method of achieving political power. Now I must admit that I remain unconvinced by this further layer of complexity. Roger’s final paean to the rising sun is more than simply a straightforward rejection of the Shepherd’s message. It is surely a synthesis of the King’s original constrained personality with the recognition of the emotional power of the love which the Shepherd preaches. The music itself shows this, with its glowing diatonic C major harmonies enriched by the chromatic waywardness of the Shepherd’s own style. Holten himself admits in his commentary that Szymanowski’s employment of his text here is open to more than one interpretation. He has clearly thought deeply about the matter, and he gets so much else exactly right that I am quite willing to allow him his own ‘take’ on the situation, which is certainly an arguably valid view.

The results in terms of the staging are dramatically stunning. The way in which the gigantic head slowly emerges from the total darkness on stage and in the orchestra pit during the long choral opening is thrilling in the extreme. Pappano makes no bones whatsoever about giving us the enormous dynamic contrasts during the long crescendo in full measure. It would be an obdurate listener indeed who did not feel the hair on the back of his neck rising at this moment – and indeed elsewhere in this production, such as the radiant entry of the Shepherd in Act Two, or the ending of the work as Roger strips away his clothes to experience the warmth of the rising sun - itself magnificently realised. The music helps but it is a real delight to find a production that works so much at one with the score and does not seek to undermine it. Indeed I cannot understand the critics who complained about the original stage presentation, except perhaps to think that they were allergic to the emotional indulgence of the music itself. If that were the case, something is seriously wrong with their over-jaded palates. Alright, in an ideal world the closing ‘Hymn to the Sun’ could be more extended without doing damage to the musical proportions but it leaves the listener aching for more, which is surely better than feeling jaded by an over-extended peroration.

Apart from the mention of Pappano’s superbly controlled conducting, I have now written over a thousand words of this review without commenting on the musical performance at all. This really is an injustice, for which I must apologise to everyone concerned. The three leading roles in this opera are none of them easy to encompass. The part of Roger requires a heroic baritone with sufficient power to ride Szymanowski’s often luxuriant orchestration. Those of Roxana and the Shepherd also require considerable reserves of volume, but at the same time must also be able to fine themselves down to an almost imperceptible pianissimo free from any suspicion of vibrato or unsteadiness – and to change from one mode to the other within a matter of seconds. All three also need to be proficient in the Polish language. Mariusz Kwieceń in his interview states baldly that Król Roger is “the only Polish opera” and if one allows for the failure of Moniuszko’s operas to establish themselves in the repertoire outside Poland, and the apparent disappearance of Penderecki’s operas from world stages in recent years, I suppose he is right. That said, Szymanowski, like Janačék, works better in his original language; and although a translation might render the action more immediately approachable for non-Polish audiences, the provision here of subtitles enables the viewer to engage with the drama without difficulty. Kwieceń is the only native Polish speaker in the cast, but his burnished tones and dramatic engagement are everything that one could wish for, and he looks magnificent as he rises to deliver his peroration.

As his wife Georgia Jarman acts superbly in her handsome 1920s costumes, and while there is plenty of power in her big scenes she is also able to hone her voice down beautifully for the unaccompanied offstage opening of her aria - the best-known item in the score. At the very beginning of his big aria in Act One, there is just the slightest suspicion that Saimir Pirgu does not have the ideal steadiness of tone which one might ideally desire. This is only a momentary lapse only and after that he is ringingly declamatory and delicately poised as the music requires. As a singer whose career has been largely in the Italian repertory, he has just the right sort of Mediterranean warmth for the exotic character. The other tenor role, that of Roger’s advisor Edrisi, is trenchantly taken by the veteran Kim Begley but he seems ill at ease in his characterisation as an ineffectual intellectual in Act Three. This is an interpretation by the director that seems to find no echo in the music Szymanowski has given him. Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko are both finely resonant as the baleful clerics in Act One.

The orchestra are simply superb, relishing all the richness of Szymanowski’s massive scoring, and the chorus manage what are some incredibly difficult lines with apparent ease whilst enthusiastically entering into the action as required. Sometimes one finds that modern updatings of historical operas simply fail to come off, or (worse still) actually undermine the music. I felt no such qualms here, and my enjoyment was even further increased by listening to the conductor’s and director’s commentaries. Indeed I was happy to listen to the whole opera straight through twice — King Roger is, after all, not a long work — the second time with commentaries on, and enjoy it every bit as much the second time. Anyone who loves this opera, and indeed anyone who has yet to come to know it, can be enthusiastically pointed in the direction of this issue either on Blu-Ray or DVD. They will find themselves as overwhelmed as I was.
Paul Corfield Godfrey



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