Karel Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger), roughly contemporaneous with Janáček’s final two operas and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle – has had to wait almost a century before being staged at the Royal Opera House. All credit to Antonio Pappano and Kasper Holten for a brilliant production of a masterpiece.
Król Roger is richly scored and commands attention from start to finish, and it should find a home with anyone admiring the above-named composers and Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. The Polish piece is just as fascinating in terms of its use of the orchestra and its exploration of the human psyche. Between 1909 and 1914 Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) – born in the Ukraine to a family that had deep roots in Poland – travelled widely, including Sicily, where Król Roger is set.
Szymanowski is preoccupied with the Dionysian credo that only through physical love can man get close to fathoming the nature of divine love. Euripides’s The Bacchae is his underlying source, with its exploration of the conflict between man’s rational and instinctive selves, between the civilised and the sensual aspects of his nature.
It is the 12th-century and Roger wields absolute power over his subjects, supported by the might of the Orthodox Church and the devotion of Roxana, his queen. But when a handsome stranger – a Shepherd – arrives at court, Roger’s mental state is thrown into disarray. His marriage is not as stable as outward appearances might suggest, and encouraged by his wife he becomes increasingly obsessed with the visitor.
Given that Szymanowski was homosexual and perhaps sees himself in Roger’s persona, Kasper Holten might have suggested a physical component to the king’s obsession, but he sidesteps this and leaves us to ponder that possibility.
In any case, Roger’s interior world is shaken to the core by the Shepherd’s arrival, and Roxana is equally in thrall. Any initial notion that the newcomer may have something Christ-like about him proves wide of the mark, for his real purpose is to promote a lifestyle that is emphatically Dionysian. And during Act Two, set in the king’s library, we are presented with a glimpse of what that implies.
With his considerable experience of performing the title role, Mariusz Kwiecień (singing in his native tongue) depicts Roger’s tormented soul with conviction, both dramatically and vocally. Georgia Jarman, not least in her short aria in Act Two, sings superbly, offering a touching portrayal of a woman who is distressed by the frigidity of her marriage. And Saimir Pirgu, of lyrical voice and handsome presence, makes the Shepherd’s power over the royal couple easy to comprehend, although his vivid formal attire hardly chimes with the designation Shepherd. Kim Begley cuts a dignified figure as Roger’s advisor Edrisi, and Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko respectively present an intimidating Archbishop and Deaconess. Furthermore, the sonorous contribution of the Royal Opera Chorus is truly impressive, especially in Act One.
The score moves from the dark tones of the Orthodox Church music via entrancingly sensuous writing to the blazing brightness at the opera’s close. Antonio Pappano conducts masterfully and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House responds superbly to his and the composer’s requirements.
Kasper Holten’s direction and the designs of Steffen Aarfing are both wonderfully apt. In the first Act there is huge head at the centre of stage, and projected onto its surface are subtly shifting shapes and colours that conjure up the opulence of the church setting while also hinting at the mental conflicts that lie at the opera’s core. In Act Two the reverse side of the head is exposed – its three tiers offering not merely a view of the library, but also vividly choreographed ‘below stairs’ sexual imaginings that could be the product of the queen’s mind as much as Roger’s. In the final Act a tumultuous moment of release from past difficulties leaves us with an open-ended view of what the future may hold for all concerned.
I cannot recommend Król Roger highly enough. Ian Russell’s direction for the screen is extremely satisfying, the DVD sound and picture quality is first-rate, and I have it on good authority that the Blu-ray version is even more stunning. The extras comprise a director’s commentary, introductions to the story, the music, and the staging, and a cast gallery.