In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Review – Król Roger (Royal Opera House, Friday 1 May 2015)

Król Roger – Mariusz Kwicień
Roxana – Georgia Jarman
Shepherd – Samir Pirgu
Edrisi – Kim Begley
Archbishop – Alan Ewing
Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko

Director – Kasper Holten
Designs – Steffen Aarfing
Lighting Design – Jon Clark
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Choreography – Cathy Marston
Dramaturg – John Lloyd Davies

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

My first experience of Karol Szymanowski was his Stabat Mater, and ever since I have been smitten. His music, both for orchestra and singers is both beautifully crafted and mesmerising – the sound world he creates is a beautiful fusion – however subjective – of Debussy, Stravinsky by way of Scriabin.

This was Król Roger debut at Covent Garden and it was an impressive and memorable evening.

Mariusz Kwicień has been championing this opera for some time delivered the title role with both vocal and dramatic authority. Indeed had Kasper Holten not referred to his indisposition just before the final act, I wonder if anyone would have truly noticed? Vocally, his was a very nuanced interpretation and supported by strong and committed acting. His journey from confident monarch to, what exactly – enlightened individual? – was completely absorbing. And following his final confrontation – victorious or not – with his inner demons, his final paean to the Sun was hypnotic.

In the role of the Shepherd, Samir Pirgu was as much his very embodiment as Kwicień was of the King. He seemed effortless in managing not only the high tessitura of the role but also the expansive vocal lines that Szymanowski wrote for this character, his bright, clear tenor effectively conveying his almost messianic self-belief.

And Georgia Jarman made an equally impressive debut as Roxana. Vocally assured her rhapsodic ‘aria’ of the Second Act was, quite rightly, one of the highlights of the evening. She soared across the composer’s vocal lines, shaping each phrase beautifully, matching it with a real attention to colour and timbre. I hope that this is the first of many appearances at Covent Garden for this exceptionally talented soprano.

As the Edrisis, Kim Begley tenor was in thoughtful contrast to that of the Shepherd and together with the Archbishop of Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko’s Deaconess, they made up what as an impressive line up of soloists.

The Royal Opera Chorus was in excellent and dramatically compelling form. From their first hushed Hagios, they were a critical element of the evening, underpinning and contributing to the unfolding drama and producing sumptuous sound.

Pappano drew some exquisite and full-blooded playing from the orchestra. He has always been a conductor of the finer details, and he drew each and every from Szymanowski’s score. Perhaps it was first night nerves, but very occasionally the orchestra verged on overwhelming the singers, but there was no doubting that Pappano and his players had the full measure of the score and the riches written into it.

On Twitter after the first night, Kasper Holten commented, “I enjoy doing difficult titles, sometimes they are easier”. He might not have been speaking of Król Roger specifically but it certainly fits. This was a thought-provoking and detailed production. Set it in the 1930s, it invoked not only an overpowering sense of authoritarianism – be it the church or, as embodied by the massive bust that dominated the stage, of Roger himself – but also of mysticism with the seemingly Byzantine-inspired gallery. and effective use of both lighting and video designs further heightened the sense of suffocation. For the Second Act, the bust rotated to reveal Roger’s palace as well as his own mind. Roger’s sense of identity and self-control was clearly identifiable in the books piled on the various levels, but on ground level Holten effectively portrayed his dark side. Sinuous, masked dancers writhed with increasing frenzy and sensuality – but not sexuality – as Roger confronted his own fears and desires that eventually engulfed him as the curtain fell. In the Third Act, the book burning was particularly chilling and, handled so effectively, completely believable, as was the sudden and shocking violence as Roger battled with himself.

And the ending? Personally, I felt that Roger had confronted his demons – not only those kindled by sensual world of the Shepherd, but also the King’s own desire for individuality and control – and had emerged more fully enlightened.

Szymanowski’s Król Roger might only have had its debut at Covent Garden eighty-nine years after its premiere in the Grand Theatre of Warsaw but, judging from the excited buzz as people left after the first night, I am very much hoping it remains in the repertoire of the Royal Opera House for many years to come.

  1. […] fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and […]

  2. […] stand him in good stead of a more positive place in Covent Garden’s history are the superlative Król Roger a year ago and George Enescu’s Oedipe. Both, if I am not mistaken, UK […]

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