Royal Opera House, London - 2015
Antonio Pappano, Kasper Holten, Mariusz Kwiecien, Saimir Pirgu, Georgia Jarman, Kim Begley, Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Szymanowski's Król Roger is a rare enough work, but not so rare that you wouldn't have come across it before and even had an opportunity to see it performed thanks to a fine Blu-ray release of the 2009 production at Bregenz. That particular production, while it looked marvellous and highlighted that this was a work that merited more attention, was a fairly arid stage production that made little effort to explore the subtext and context of the work. Kasper Holten takes a bit more of a chance in the work's first production at the Royal Opera House, opening up the themes of a little known work and making it explicit through this release to a worldwide audience. The real risk however is perhaps revealing that there's not much more great depth to the work than is apparent just beneath the surface.
Based on 'The Bacchae' by Euripides, and set in the Byzantine era of the 12th century ruler of Palermo, Szymanowski's Król Roger is a fairly basic morality tale. It explores the consequences of a Christian king whose moral certainties and security of his authority is challenged by the arrival of a new prophet. This takes in a familiar opera subject, beloved of Baroque opera seria, of the need of a ruler to show caution in balancing the exercise of power against the satisfaction of their own personal needs. Like many European artists, writers and filmmakers who have been drawn over the years by the allure of an exotic paradise and a closer connection to nature that permits a more open sexual liberation, Szymanowski had a passion for the hedonism and cultural diversity of the Mediterranean, and issues relating to the composer's homosexuality are also very much a part of what the opera is about.
Listening to the reports of the Shepherd-Prophet's activities, King Roger initially regards his seductive promise that true happiness can only be found in indulging the senses as pagan blasphemy. Troubled and jealous of the influence the Shepherd has over Queen Roxana, he orders the dangerous madman be put to death, but relents when the Queen appeals for clemency and instead banishes him. Roger is however perturbed by the words of the Shepherd. When did he ever last feel passion such as that described by the prophet? He might be a king, but in contrast to the limitless pleasures promised by the prophet, he has to admit to himself that his reach doesn't extend beyond his own arm, or more pointedly, beyond a sword at the end of his arm. There's a persuasive argument here that troubles the King, so he invites the Prophet to another private meeting.
The conflict between the head and the heart can't be missed in the most distinguishing characteristic of Kasper Holten's direction and Steffen Aarfing's set design, with its huge head dominating as the eye-catching centre-piece. It's a feature that was also evident in Holten's Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House, the psychology of the noble made visible and compartmentally spread in 3D projections across the various levels and rooms of a mansion construction. Unlike Don Giovanni, the simplicity and abstraction of his idea works more effectively in Król Roger. The huge choral opening of the work calls out for a big gesture, and the monumental imagery here could hardly be more effective in achieving the necessary impact.
Like Don Giovanni's house of the mind, Król Roger's head revolves 360˚ in the second act to show the conflict that is going on within it, on a literal as well as an internal level. The head is split into several levels, showing the living quarters of the King and the Queen. At a lower level a mass of semi-naked bodies can be seen twisting and writhing while the king grapples with the doubts that the words of the Shepherd have awakened in him. It's debatable whether Holten's production, set moreover in the 1920s, does anything more than make the subtext of the composer's homosexuality a little more obvious, but on the evidence of the beautiful performance of the work at the Royal Opera house, there is clearly a musical richness to the work and wider themes explored that suggest that Szymanowski's Król Roger is worthy of more attention.
All of this is indeed seductive to the listener, as much as it is to the king. What is interesting about Król Roger, and what suggests that there is potentially more to say about the work than Kasper Holten suggests, is the rather more ambiguous ending. There is a danger in letting oneself submit to wild abandon of earthly delights, Roger risking losing his power and influence, becoming reduced to a pilgrim or a beggar. Salome pays the price to pay for stepping outside those boundaries, but after his own experience at transgressing social and sexual mores, Oscar Wilde would later revise this view in 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' to the opinion that each man might indeed kill the thing he loves "yet each man does not die". Szymanowski's Król Roger - and to be fair Holten's production supports this - seems to go along with this, Roger appearing to be reborn through acknowledgement and acceptance of those desires, if not quite in submission to them.
If there's a seductiveness to this view proposed by the Shepherd that Roger is unable to resist, a lot of it is to do with Szymanowski's score, the vivid reading of it by Antonio Pappano, and the outstanding singing performances. The complementary contrasts between Mariusz Kwiecien's Roger and Saimir Pirgu's Shepherd in particular really contribute to the essential dynamic. Singing in his native Polish Kwiecien is impressive - commanding and authoritative turning to tortured and liberated, his voice reflecting all the passion that is contained within that journey. Saimir Pirgu seductive lyric tenor is simply perfect casting for the Prophet, and Georgia Jarman's Roxana is wonderfully persuasive in her effusive declarations.
The complementary material on the BD release gives some good background information on this rare work. The director, conductor and case contribute to a five-minute introduction that explores the work, its musical language and its characters in sufficient depth, and there is also a more detailed look at the sets and the music. In addition to this, there's a full-length commentary from Kasper Holten and an essay in the enclosed booklet by John Lloyd Davies that explores the Nietzschean undercurrents in the subject, as well its parallels with Hamlet, von Aschenbach and Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. The quality of the recording is good, the opera benefiting particularly from the wide dynamic of the High Definition sound. The BD is region-free with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
Links: The Royal Opera House