It is something of a gamble by the Royal Opera House to stage Karol Szymanowski’s 1926 opera King Roger (Król Roger). Despite a growing number of performances of his music in this country and a crop of recordings over the last couple of decades (notably by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), Szymanowski is still not a well-known composer. And King Roger is a very odd sort of opera. At around 90 minutes in length and with a fairly static plot, it resembles a secular oratorio rather than a fully-fledged musical stage drama.
The action, such as it is, concerns the fictionalised encounter between the conservative Christian King Roger II of Sicily and an enigmatic Shepherd, preaching a vague doctrine of sensual permissiveness. Egged on by his lsomewhat hysterical queen, Roxana, Roger is initially drawn to the Bacchic cult, only to hesitate in the final scene, sensing a ‘third way’ of spiritual fulfilment. The opera’s concept, libretto (mostly written by the composer’s younger cousin, the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz) and music stem from Szymanowski’s twin preoccupations – the exoticism of the Mediterranean world and his own sexuality. Surprisingly, both elements were largely absent from this rather straightforward production by Royal Opera director Kasper Holten.
Instead, Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing treated the opera as a Nietzschean parable, warning of the dangers of the masses’ infatuation with a charismatic leader, and of surrendering to the animal within. As if to emphasise this head versus body dichotomy, the stage was dominated in the first act by a giant sculptural head, surrounded by a fascist-era arena. The costumes, too, stemmed from the 1920s rather than the twelfth century period of the real King Roger’s reign. Only the Archbishop (sung by Alan Ewing) and the Deaconess (Agnes Zwierko) were dressed, somewhat incongruously, in Eastern Orthodox garb. In Act II the head revolved to reveal the workings of Roger’s mind – a library of books on the upper levels, and writhing male bodies (later led by the Shepherd in a wild, orientalist dance) below stairs. By Act III the head had been replaced by an open fire, onto which the people hurled Roger’s books.
Baritone Mariusz Kwieicien was bold and passionate in the title role, despite pleading a cold. As a Pole, his diction was spot-on, and he gave a convincing portrayal of the only really three-dimensional character in the opera. Samir Pirgu just about managed to stretch to the very high tenor lines demanded of him, although he never came across as particularly seductive. This wasn’t helped by Holten’s toning down of the homoerotic element (a single stroke on the cheek was brusquely rejected by Roger in Act II), and Pirgu’s unflattering bright orange kaftan and toothpaste smile came across as creepy rather than sexy. Soprano Georgia Jarman made the most of her yearning, florid arias, while tenor Kim Begley provided the calm voice of reason as Roger’s chief minister Edrisi.
Most impressive of all were the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House. From their haunting appearance at the darkened windows of the arena in Act I to their frightening book burning frenzy in Act III, the chorus was starkly convincing as both the compliant and then liberated masses. Conductor Antonio Pappano clearly had Szymanowski’s score tightly under his belt. It would have been easy to go overboard with the lush exoticism of the music, or to interpret it in the manner of Strauss, Bartók, Scriabin or Ravel – all of whose influences are discernible. Instead, he took a middle course of firm control over its more wayward elements while highlighting Szymanowski’s subtle textures and brilliant array of orchestral colour.