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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Król 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
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Director: Kasper Holton
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, 12 and 16 May 2015
sung in Polish with English, French, German, Japanese, and Korean subtitles
Extras: Director’s commentary; introduction to Król Roger; the sets; the music; cast gallery [17:00]
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1161D [105:00]

I would have given this stunning production of Szymanowski’s Król Roger on DVD a Recording of the Month, if Paul Corfield Godfrey hadn’t already done so on this website in his review of the Blu-ray disc. He goes into great detail on the opera’s background and on the specifics of this fabulous performance. My introduction to the opera was by way of Simon Rattle’s Birmingham account on Warner/EMI Classics with Thomas Hampson as King Roger, Elzbieta Szmytka as Roxana and Ryszard Minkiewicz as the Shepherd. I have always greatly admired that recording and I still do, but I must say this new production from the Royal Opera is fully its equal musically and offers the visual aspect that an audio-only recording obviously cannot provide.

Once one gets used to the updating of the opera’s setting and accepts this production for what it is, one can have nothing but admiration for the realization of the work from both a musical and directorial aspect. Sure, I would have rather seen the characters in the costumes and staging of 12th century Sicily, depicting the era that the composer intended. Nonetheless, the opera’s message is universal and can withstand treatment of the 1920s - the decade of its composition - as here, where symbolism is more important than the depiction of historical reality.

Rattle’s conception may be more opulent than this one with Hampson an especially rich-voiced Roger, but the added drama and realism of this new production are telling. From the very beginning where the stage is draped in complete darkness and the liturgical singing of the chorus emerges gradually from the distance before reaching its glorious climax, the effect is overwhelming—more so than in Rattle’s recording where the microphones are placed closer. The principals all perform their roles unexceptionably well and it is a real advantage to have a native Pole in the central role. The melodic line of the Shepherd’s first aria, “My God is as beautiful as I am…” reminded my very much of the Holy Fool’s lament in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Saimir Pirgu convinces throughout with his lyrical and seductive tones. I found only that it took quite a stretch of the imagination in the choice of costume to see him as a shepherd, but then one could argue that a king in a business suit is also a stretch. Mariusz Kwieceń captures both the power and the vulnerability of his part vocally and visually to a degree that I would doubt could be bettered. His dialogues with Edrisi, a role that Kim Begley inhabits in excellent voice, differentiate the individual parts well, something that is not always the case on the Rattle recording. There Hampson and tenor Philip Langridge can sound too much alike at times.

Antonio Pappano and the superb orchestra establish the darkness and even terror at the start of Act Two before Roger expresses his anxiety and anguish to Edrisi as he awaits the arrival of the Shepherd. When Roxana, whose costume ideally suits her character, sings her haunting vocalise and aria at first from some distance and then with more presence, it comes on like a balm. This is the most famous number in the opera, and Georgia Jarman leaves nothing to be desired in her portrayal of the queen. I find it hard to choose between her and Elzbieta Szmytka, one of my favorite sopranos, in Rattle’s recording; Szmytka is also the soloist in Rattle’s unbeatable account of the Stabat Mater in his Szymanowski series. The orgiastic dance scene in this act also works well, though I have always found this to be the least attractive feature of the score. It is exotic and somewhat oriental in nature, leading to a tremendous climax when Roger commands the Shepherd be bound in chains, which he breaks and scorns the king’s enslaving of him.

When the Shepherd takes over the kingdom in the third act, he dons a business suit like Roger’s earlier. It fits the part, if you have accepted Roger in that costume in the previous acts. On the other hand, the scene of the sacrificial bonfire with the book burning is most effective. As the opera ends with the dawn of a new day, Roger has regained some of his former strength though one is never sure where this will take him. Its very ambiguity has been the subject of some discussion, especially as the opera ends in a blaze of C major. Roger’s absorbing the sun’s rays as Kwieceń partially strips in this role leaves a most positive impression.

Of the extras on this DVD, I found the director’s commentary the most useful. Pappano and Kasper Holten do a superb job in guiding one through the opera. I would recommend viewing the commentary before watching the opera, as they elucidate the character’s actions and the staging of the production well. More than some other operas it is also crucial to have good subtitles and this production fulfills this function. Polish, like Czech, is a language rich in consonants and hearing this opera, or the operas of Janáček, in the original gives so much flavour that a translation cannot possibly equal.

I do not see this Król Roger being surpassed anytime soon and, though it is still early, I imagine it will be among my favourite discs I have had the privilege to review this year.

Leslie Wright
Previous review (Blu-ray): Paul Corfield Godfrey (Recording of the Month)



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