Saturday, 2 May 2015

Seductive and satisfying - King Roger at Covent Garden

King Roger - photo copyright ROH
King Roger - photo copyright ROH
Karol Szymanowski Król Roger; Mariusz Kwiecien, Goergia Jarman, Saimir Pirgu, dir: Kasper Holten, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 1 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Musically and dramatically satisfying account of a highly seductive opera

With its richly seductive sound-world, three challenging solo roles and huge choral and orchestral forces, Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger (King Roger) has great power to seduce, but it is inevitably not everyday operatic fare. But this is combined with a plot (almost a Wagnerian non-plot) in which little happens except the struggle between Dionysiac and Apollonian elements, with an ending powerful in its uncertainty.

For its first ever production on 1 May 2015, the Royal Opera brought together a strong cast with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, Georgia Jarman as Roxana and Saimir Pirgu as the shepherd, with Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko and Kim Begley. Kasper Holten directed his third main-house production for the company, designed by Steffen Aarfing, with lighting by Jon Clark, video by Luke Halls and choreography by Cathy Marston.

Szymanowski and his librettist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz had intended their opera to be based on Euripides' The Bacchae (a stranger comes to town announcing he is a God, the King and Queen refuse to accept and the stranger wreaks terrible revenge) except with an ending where King Roger embraces the Dionysiac elements and follows the Shepherd. But writing act three, he changed his mind and the ended is now more uncertain and King Roger's rapturous ending can be interpreted in different ways. There lies the opera's fascination for directors. When preparing to encounter the piece for the first time, at Santa Fe Opera (see my review), I came across an excerpt on YouTube in which the ending took place by the side of a Hollywood style pool with a character wearing a Mickey Mouse head. It is that kind of opera.

It is easy to characterise the plot in terms of Szymanowski's homosexuality, and that does play an important part. But it is not the defining element in the opera, but it is important that the Shepherd has some sort of clear erotic attraction for Roger. You can add in to this mix, however the savagery in the original Euripides play and how this chimed in with Szymanowski's attitude to war having lost the family estate in World War One, and completed writing the opera in the troubled 1920's.

Director Kasper Holten used John Lloyd Davies as his dramaturg for the production and John Lloyd Davies thinking was clearly shown from his two articles in the programme and from the selection of images which chimed in with Steffen Aarfing's designs.

But what we experienced first was sound. The magical sound world of Szymanowski's opera emanating from a black stage, and Antonio Pappano and his forces really did conjure magic. When light gradually came up, we saw tantalising glimpses of a huge (really huge) head, with Jon Clark's lighting and Luke Halls video combining to make a visual analogue to the seductive sound of Szymanowski's music.

When the lights did come up we were in a Giorgio de Chirico-esque colosseum, with a huge head in the centre. The chorus was placed in ranks, stationary, in the levels of the colosseum walls looking down on Mariusz Kwiecien's King Roger. He was in a smart black suit, and costumes were firmly 1920's; when Roxana (Georgia Jarman) appeared her stylish outfit firmly fixed the period.  The role of the head was a little unclear, it seemed almost as if King Roger was worshipping it. When the Shepherd (Saimir Pirgu) appeared he was dressed in an exotic coloured silk tunic, in contrast to the sober-suited men of the court. And the chorus (let loose from the walls of the colosseum and now playing a dramatic role) were violent to him from the start.

All became clearer in act two, as the head turned round and we were presented with a multi-level interior, again very evocative of Giorgio de Chirico. The upper half of the structure was a library, with books everywhere, whilst the lower was a seething mass of semi-naked dancers (all men) rendered faceless by black masks. This was the pull between Dionysus and Apollo made manifest, perhaps too much so. When the Shepherd seduces the entire court, and takes them off in an orgy, the chorus remained relatively sober (and certainly fully clothed), it was the semi-naked dancers who ran riot. And there was violence too, as the dancers beat King Roger up and left him prone.

During the interval, in act two, I was a little uncertain about the production and did worry that it was a little too cerebral. Whilst the naked dancers certainly made clear the homo-erotic undertones of the text, Kasper Holten seemed not to want to articulate any particular physical attraction between the Shepherd and King Roger, and was clearly interested in the idea that the Shepherd is almost part of King Roger. But to make the drama of the end of act two really work, you need an erotic pull too.

All came together in the short, but dramatic final act. The curtain opened with an evaporating video projection of the head, now dissolved into a burning mass and leaving King Roger alone and prone. The Shepherd, Roxana and others watch from the walls of the colosseum (clearly the image of being watched was very important to Kasper Holten). The abandon that the chorus demonstrates, following the Shepherd's lead, extends to violence and book burning. The ending, with a now shirt-less Mariusz Kwiecien back lit by blinding light, was an apt visual equivalent of the music, with a sense of Roger woken to new life.

This was very much a meditation on the dramatic content, almost a production about the opera King Roger and it would not have worked without such stunning performances from all concerned. Mariusz Kwiecien was superb in the title role, but in a sense he is a known quality having become something of an exponent for the work. The revelation was very much the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu (and no, Albanian language is nothing like Polish) who is mainly known for his Italian lyric tenor roles. The Shepherd is a tricky role to cast, you need a tenor who can sound lyrical but has the strength to project Szymanowski's long lines over the large orchestra and who can look physically seductive. Saimir Pirgu gave one of the finest vocal accounts of the role that I have ever heard. He kept up a long, sinuous and highly seductive line throughout the opera, whilst looking highly attractive and visually striking. Perhaps he was dramatically a little stiff, but this reflected Kasper Holten's rather hieratic view of the work, and Saimir Pirgu was very much the God on earth and his relation to Mariusz Kwiecien's King Roger was conceptual rather than physical. In act three, the Shepherd's role is rather less, very much an observer waiting for Roger and here Kasper Holten's production brought out the rather cantor-like nature of the music. Making the Shepherd seem distant, encouraging yet tantalising.

During the interval, Mariusz Kwiecien was announced as being ill and that is voice was tiring. Luckily there was not particularly audible sign of this, except perhaps a slight feeling that he might have been trying too hard occasionally. Much of the production sat on Mariusz Kwiecien, Kasper Holten's concept being based almost inside King Roger's head. Mariusz Kwiecien was brilliant in act two as he struggled with the Shepherd's seductive pull, which was made manifest in Mariusz Kwiecien's physical behaviour. And his singing reflected this. In the long solo ruminative in act three he really brought out the sense of the struggle within the character. And the ending was gloriously rapturous (and it has to be added that Mariusz Kwiecien without his shirt was a real bonus).

The role of King Roger's Queen, Roxana, is a strange one as she has a highly complex seductive line but is more of a concept than a person, with no strong relationship to King Roger. Georgia Jarman (who sang Ellen Orford in Grange Park Opera's Peter Grimes and made her UK debut as the four heroines in ENO's Tales of Hoffmann) was fully equal to the complex line, producing warm yet fluidly seductive tone in seemingly endless quantities. But it was this warmth which was the key, as she brought a real warmth and sympathy to the character, making Roxana a real person and in this version she stays on stage at the end.

Kim Begley was a welcome face as Edrisi, the King's councillor. It is a curious role, one which is slightly out of the drama and commenting on it. Kim Begley made Edrisi work as a character, bringing sympathy and authority to the role. Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko were the religious characters at the opening, vehemently demanding the shepherd's death.

The chorus has a big role in this work and they were on glorious form. The opening choruses, for the religious ceremony, were rapturous in their beauty and throughout they sang with a fine combination of seductive beauty and control, but in the key moments let go with ferocity. Steffen Aarfing's costumes for the chorus seemed to be from a palate of grey,  it was only at the curtain calls that we realised that the colours were muted but far more subtle than that.

The work was sung in Polish but I have no sense of how good the grasp of the language was, though it sounded very clear from the non-Poles in the cast (helpful to have a Polish man in the title role).

Antonio Pappano and the orchestra brought out the colour and seductive beauty of the score, but also you felt Szymanowski's admiration for Stravinsky's early scores. But Antonio Pappano never over luxuriated and wallowed in the score, allowing it to flow with a nice pace.

Ultimately this was a richly satisfying production, and I wish there were more than six performances so that we could go and see it again. Perhaps the biggest test was that a number of people I talked to felt that it had all been too short, that they had wanted it to last longer!

If you are curious, or seduced, then the full performance of King Roger can be viewed from Saturday 16 May 2015 on the Royal Opera House's website, on YouTube and on the Opera Europa Digital Platform, a new website to be launched early May that will showcase live streams and a range of behind-the-scenes footage from 15 opera houses across Europe.

There is also an interesting interview with Mariusz Kwiecien, talking about his work on this production and the ideas behind it, in the website and it is well worth reading for some of the illuminating ideas behind the production. 
Elsewhere on this blog:


  1. "the full performance of King Roger can be viewed from Saturday 16 May 2015 on the Royal Opera House's website, on YouTube and on the Opera Europa Digital Platform, a new website to be launched early May"
    Can anyone please inform me what is meant by "can be viewed FROM Sat 16th May". I am away for a few days either side of this date and can find no information on any web site (E.g Opera Europ or ROH) apart from the cryptic "FROM"....."!! Is it intended to be available for days, weeks......?? Thanks

    1. Sorry, that is all the information that I have at the moment. I will update the blog if I can find out more!



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