May Madness Mix 4: Król Roger (ROH, 9 May 2015)
This seldom produced opera boasts one the most lushly vivid, deeply introspective libretti out there. The English translation often moved me to the brink of tears. Now it’s true that I’d been away to happy musicland that week but still. Holten’s done a great job with this production.
Król Roger II: Mariusz Kwiecień
Shepherd: Saimir Pirgu
Roxana: Georgia Jarman
Edrisi: Kim Begley
Archbishop: Alan Ewing
Deaconess: Agnes Zwierko
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House | Royal Opera Chorus
As I gathered from the program (I had a voucher), Szymanowski had more learned inspiration for his opera but I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite childhood fairytales, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Here a mysterious Shepherd with what appears to be a mix of Sufi/Hindu leanings shows up in King Roger’s land (medieval Sicily) and turns the minds of his subjects, ultimately causing the king himself to face a profound internal crisis.
I really liked how Pappano started it all: rather quiet, dark and mysterious, more evocative than in the ‘tube productions I watched. I enjoyed the fact that I needed to strain a bit to hear; the beginning of a fairytale.
Holten sets most of the opera in the actual mind of the king (the back of a bust we see at the beginning of the opera). The mind is naturally organised on three tiers: the base one standing for the id, populated by vague but intense desires, the second one is the concrete mind driven by social rules/practicality and the third is the highly abstract area where concepts reside. The king challenges the Shepherd to a battle of wills. The Shepherd meets the king on the lowest tier, from where he branches upwards, until he has the power to throw the king out of his own skull. That, I thought, was indeed a stroke of genius. As the Stone Roses would say “I don’t need to sell my soul, he’s already in me”. Who needs the classics, eh?
Interestingly, Szymanowski does not finish the opera with the king simply enslaved by the Shepherd. By the beginning of act III the Shepherd has disappeared and an ambiguous conversation between the (equally ambiguous) queen and adviser (Edrisi) intimates that there never was a Shepherd in the first place. It appears that the king has undergone a change of mentality and is stronger for it – he finishes the opera singing a hymn to the sun (enlightenment?).
Both the queen and the adviser had been, unlike the clergy and the regular people, in favour of the king meeting and engaging with the Shepherd (whatever he was), whose presence they seemed to tolerate a lot better than the others, king included. So I take it that the Shepherd represents the lure of the exotic as much as a natural challenge to the status quo. Holten quite obviously pits the clergy against the queen and the adviser whilst the king must make the decision: face change or take refuge in the tried and true.
I’d seen Kwiecień last year as Don Giovanni and I was not quite convinced by the overly intellectualised take. This more naturally introspective role seems to have suited him a lot better. Likewise the music Szymanowski wrote for King Roger brought out the best in his elegant and serious baritone voice. An excellent performance indeed.
I’m not familiar enough with the opera to tell whether the Shepherd was meant to sound overly commanding as Pirgu tended to come off here. I’d have liked him to appear more slyly seductive throughout. I didn’t entirely like his singing but his acting was rather interesting. The Shepherd is understandably the most ambiguous character in an opera full of them (the best kind of opera!), so a lot can be done dramatically. I’d have gone for full-on insidiousness, where the Shepherd does not need to publicly savour his conquest at all but, in spite of the somewhat uneventful vocal characterisation, Pirgu did balance command with smoothness in his acting.
I was happy and eager to be wowed and after the intermission under the even chipper influence of champagne (I used my £20 ROH package discount in one go for this show) but if you want a completely different response to this production, check out what The Operatunist has to say. It ain’t pretty 😉 but, as usual, he has his reasons.