Enthusiasm is contagious–you have to cover up carefully lest it make you sick. It seems that any time a rarely performed piece of music more than a quarter century old is hauled out for inspection, it is burdened with the label of “neglected masterpiece.” This makes good copy and stirs up interest, but it also sets up unreasonable expectations that the work itself is blameless in failing to meet. Even some familiar operas we happily attend every several years are less than masterpieces, after all. If they engage us and are worthy of hearing, seeing, and perhaps returning to, this is more than enough.
Karol Szymanowski’s only opera, Król Roger, languished in relative obscurity for many years following its 1926 premiere, but its fortunes have been on the upswing in recent decades. It is a concise and concentrated work, longer than Pagliacci but shorter than Hänsel und Gretel, and a synopsis of its slender story suggests more overt drama than we see onstage.
The 12th-century Sicilian King Roger (baritone), presiding over a rigid Christian society, is expected to punish a mysterious newcomer known only as the Shepherd (tenor) for preaching a gospel of free love and pleasure. Roger’s wife, Roxana (soprano), whom Roger has neglected sexually, urges clemency.
Roger spares the Shepherd but orders him to present to the palace that night for trial. But the Shepherd’s message has stirred doubts and repressed desires in Roger himself, and by the end of their second meeting, Roger is toppled from power. The Shepherd lures Roxana and most of Roger’s followers away from the palace with his Dionysian credo. Roger pursues his nemesis/alter ego for a final confrontation. The final act ends with a C-major affirmation and literal bright sunlight, suggesting that Roger has been transformed. He has achieved equilibrium between the warring sides of his nature.
Szymanowski’s treatment of this material is subtle and allusive, calling to mind better-known early-20th-century operas such as Pelléas et Mélisande and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (the Bartók would, in fact, be a good double-bill partner). The composer’s theatrical sense was not the equal of his musical acumen, and Roger is a largely static, oratorio-like piece that might work just as well in a concert presentation as it does staged.
But it is without doubt the work of a composer alert to the expressive and suggestive possibilities of music. One is aware of Szymanowski “directing” the opera himself, for example, in the soothing music with which the Shepherd takes control of the first act, calming the populace; and in the orchestral stabs at the beginning of the second act, which deftly evoke the King’s doubts. The music is rich, colorful, sumptuous, and surprisingly varied over its short duration.
The opera had its Covent Garden premiere in May 2015, and the production is now available on DVD. The Royal Opera House’s young Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, created a production that mingles visual spectacle and didacticism. Costumes suggest the time of Król Roger’s composition, the 1920s. Roxana models furs and the Louise Brooks black bob that we have seen a lot of on opera stages lately; Roger is in a black pinstriped suit.
All three acts take place within a tiered arena, and in the first two acts, the stage is dominated by a large sculpted head that has the look of cast iron. Impressive projections play across the head, lending it color and expression. At times its eyes move, creepily.
In the second act, the head rotates to become a cranial representation of the palace. Roger and his books and maps and other such cerebral artifacts are at the top, while brief-clad, mud-splattered male dancers with covered faces writhe around poles (lower case) at the bottom. When the Preacher gains the upper hand in his confrontation with the King, the dancers invade the upper level to toss out the books and accost Roger. The head/palace disintegrates in the wake of the Preacher’s victory. In the third act, the Preacher has discarded his previous attire, which had suggested a cross between a playboy-fop and an evangelist, for a copy of Roger’s black suit.
This plays how it reads: it is symbolism for people who think they don’t get symbolism. Holten seems to have decided that the best way to present a work to an audience largely unfamiliar with it is to go for extreme lucidity. I believe that in aiming right for the nose at every turn, he has missed some opportunities for mystery and poetry.
He has tried too hard to nail the opera down and decrypt it, to “lead” the audience. But if his production is, in my opinion, a diagramming of Król Roger that borders on overdetermined, it is not a misrepresentation. It is an easily accessible production and an attractive one to look at, and the director’s work with his cast is commendable.
Mariusz Kwiecien, a Polish star baritone who has made a specialty of the title role, was said to be in less than best health during this run, and the usual announcements were made. Had I not read this, I would not have guessed it from what is preserved on the video release. Kwiecien is in focused and representative voice, and he sings and acts this role as though it means a great deal to him.
There is an urgency to his work not always in evidence when he undertakes repertory warhorses at the Met. He is well partnered by Georgia Jarman as the vulnerable Roxana. The American soprano sings her dreamy second-act coloratura cleanly and accurately, and she has an appealing presence, which counts for much in this musically thin, one-chance role.
Samir Pirgu, the Shepherd, makes up for a slightly strained top with a strong command of the hypnotic musical lines Szymanowski has given him. He is close enough in height, build, and coloring to be a plausible double for Kwiecien, a notion that Holten’s blocking emphasizes. Kim Begley, an experienced Herod in Strauss’s opera, knows how to put across “unctuous” by now, and he adapts easily to the role of Roger’s chief adviser, Edrisi, whom Holten sees as a shifty figure.
Antonio Pappano has proved himself in recent years to be a greater conductor than I would have guessed he had it in him to become, based on his earliest work on the international level. I am happy to have been wrong. One would have to go back some ways to find a sustained period in which the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded as good across a range of repertoire as it does today. This is what can be achieved when a theater has a vigorous and enthusiastic music director in his prime. Pappano and his players bring compelling pace and ravishing detail to Szymanowski’s alluring, often decadent score, and they make a strong case for it as great music.
There are three short bonus features. The first is standard fare: interviews with the three principal cast members, the director, and the conductor; glimpses of rehearsals. In the second, Pappano gives us one of his always-enlightening demonstrations at the piano. Unfortunately, he tries to continue explaining things while playing, and sounds as though he is about to have a heart attack.
In the third, Holten and set designer Steffen Aarfing regard the completed giant head and talk about it with amusing self-consciousness, as if they want us to think they are seeing the thing for the first time and we are listening in on a spontaneous conversation. Apparently Holten wanted the head to have a smooth and polished look, while Aarfing argued it should look craggy and, in spots, rusted. Aarfing’s view prevailed, and both men seem to agree, when all is said and done, that they have given good head.
Best of all, the DVD gives the viewer the option of listening to the entire opera with a feature-length commentary by Pappano and Holten, both of whom have plenty to say and are pleasant, witty company over 90 minutes. Like the production itself, Opus Arte’s DVD presents Król Roger with care and makes an appealing introduction to it.