King Roger (in concert performance)
King Roger II Wojtek Drabowicz
Roxana Olga Pasiecznik
Edrisi Krzysztof Szmyt
The Shepherd Ryszard Minkiewicz
Archbishop Romuald Tesarowicz
Deaconess Stefania Toczyska
A Woman Justyna Kabala
A Man Maciej Dunin-Borkowski
Tenor solo Ryszard Wróblewski
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Polish National Opera
The London Oratory School Schola
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 22 April, 2004
Venue: Sadlers Wells, London
How I wish they had brought a staging! Of the three works Polish National Opera presented at Sadler’s Wells this week, Szymanowski’s attractive and intriguing stage-work was certainly be the most familiar to UK audiences, having been presented in concert performance occasionally, most memorably at the 1998 Proms under Simon Rattle. It can certainly hold up under such presentation, as dramatically it is relatively static, but I long to see how a visionary director and designer could match Szymanowski’s colourful score.
The Chorus and Orchestra of the Polish National Opera were packed onto stage of Sadler’s Wells making it look very cramped indeed, the four major soloists confined, with the conductor, in a rather small area at stage-front. The singers of the minor roles were confined to the margins of the stage. Even from the side-stalls of the theatre this meant that not all the principal singers could be seen. Curiously, when the orchestra started to play, one immediately became aware that this arrangement also emphasised the rather dry acoustic of Sadler’s Wells. This certainly did not benefit the opera, as above all it the textures require spaciousness and airiness.
However, the orchestral playing was extremely fine, with some especially characterful woodwind playing in the dreamy mystical dance section of the second act, and some fine playing in the lower strings throughout. The gradual orchestral glow that builds at the climax of the opera was very well managed, and one had the feeling that there was still much for the players to offer – which is as it should be. I liked Jacek Kaspszyk’s rather straightforward and pacy account of the score – he does not linger too much over the exotic and languid, and the moments where the drama moves forward, for example when King Roger and his faithful councillor Edrisi decide to follow Queen Roxana and her courtiers who have been led away by the mysterious shepherd, had a propulsive quality that was telling.
The composer requires a great deal of some of the principal singers. Wojtek Drabowicz, a singer familiar to UK audiences through his Glyndebourne appearances as Eugene Onegin, sang King Roger. He has a big baritone voice and the necessary huge range that the part demands – it goes pretty high at times, and he has an ability to colour his tone to match Roger’s various moods. He was appropriately imperious as the commanding Roger first encountered and then suitably perturbed as the King perceives the threat that the mysterious shepherd poses to the stability of his kingdom, and even his marriage. His sang the King’s final affirmative paean to Life and the Sun in glorious full tone.
His queen, Roxana, was sung by Olga Pasiecznik, who has an attractive voice, with a tight, rapid vibrato, and one well able to cope with the stratospheric lines allotted to her. It must have been hard to create the necessary allure in her singing in the dry acoustic and she managed this admirably. She perhaps lacks a degree of power needed in the more declamatory sections of the first act. As for the establishment represented by the church and the faithful councillor Edrisi they were well sung – Edrisi by Krzysztof Szmyt, with Romuald Tesarowicz and Stefania Toczyska making their presence felt in the minor roles of the Archbishop and the Deaconess.
Perhaps the hardest role of all is that of the enigmatic shepherd – who later turns out to be Dionysius, the God. It must be fearsomely difficult to encompass in this high-tenor role all the facets of this complex character. When he appears he must have an attractive, ethereal quality but one needs to be able to determine a threat as well, perhaps a slight steeliness in the voice. Later on, as the true nature and power of the character is revealed the singer almost needs a different voice altogether – almost a heroic tenor as the danger needs to be more palpable but the tone must remain thrilling and pleasant. Ryszard Minkiewicz, who sang the role under Rattle in 1998 and for Rattle’s recording, repeated his portrayal here. He manages well – but only just. His voice does not quite have the easy lyricism required at the start where he sounded slightly strained and dry-toned, nor the heft required at his character’s final appearance, but steers a sort of in-between path. I missed the senses of otherworldliness and danger that should be there. He would probably fare better in a staging.
Sad to report that the theatre was not full, as I suspect had there been a production it would have been. (I was rather staggered at the presence of a babe-in-arms that twice in the evening – both before and after the interval – interrupted Roxana’s music by crying and had to be removed from the auditorium. Who possibly can think this is an appropriate place to take a baby, and does Sadler’s Wells not have a policy in this regard?) However, those who were there greeted the performance enthusiastically.