The Intentional Scandal: Szymanowski’s Krol Roger in Madrid

K. Szymanowski, Krol Roger: Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Coro Intermezzo. Conductor: Paul Daniel. Teatro Real de Madrid. 25.4.2011 (JMI)

Production Opera National de Paris
Direction: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross


King Roger: Mariusz Kwiecien
Roxana: Olga Pasichnyk
Shepherd: Will Hartmann
Erisi: Stefan Margita
Archbishop: Wojtek Smilek
Deaconess: Jadwiga Rappé

Photo courtesy Teatro Real de Madrid, © Javier del Real

Following the Spanish premiere of King Roger at Barcelona’s Liceu last season (S&H review here), Karol Szymanowski’s masterwork now comes to Madrid. Again, the opera has been well received, although the results offered shadow, next to much light. Musically, the performance was excellent. But the vocalists were hit and miss and the stage production inconsistent bordering absurd.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production has been—deservedly, in my opinion—booed by the public at Teatro Real, just as it was at its premiere in Paris. In both occasions the artistic director was Gerard Mortier, who is supposed to be very happy with the amply anticipated scandal. The production is, if nothing else, provocative, but without offering any (obvious) meaning for it all.

It is obvious that Gerard Mortier cherishes this production; he has chosen it, after all, publically praised it, and returned it now to the Teatro Real. It is also obvious that the publics in Paris and Madrid do not share his taste. Underlying is an attitude succinctly put by his Munich colleague, Nikolaus Bachler: “Public taste is always behind its time.” But there is a fine-yet-distinct line between constantly challenging and audience and an outright divorce between the artistic direction and its audience. This seems to have happened in Paris and it now takes place in Madrid as well… and it’s only Mr. Mortier’s first season as artistic director of the Teatro Real.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production has little to do with the plot of the opera. I tried hard to take the production seriously for its first two acts, although it was not easy to winnow sense from what we could see on stage. The opera began with seven long minutes of silence, with King Roger and his wife Roxana in their underwear, and above them projections of a naked father feeding his son. Afterwards, we could see a kind of pool, where Erisi injected drugs into his veins, and where numerous extras, half of them over 60, wandered around the pool striking strange poses. Finally, in the final act the shepherd reappeared, now accompanied by extras with Mickey Mouse heads, sunbathing and doing gymnastics. At that point I confess that disconnect set in. The final hymn to the sun that King Roger sings seemed to be a tribute to Miami and/or Disneyworld. What has this to do with Szymanowski’s King Roger? The same thing production could just as well (or ill) have served Lucia di Lammermoor or Siegfried and made no more or less sense. David Pountney’s production in Barcelona did not convince me either, but at least it did not work against the action.

The musical direction was Paul Daniel’s, who has become a true authority in contemporary opera, as he proved in Makropulos in this house. The orchestra sounded excellent, which might have excused its loudness at the expense of the voices. Both orchestra and choir offered a remarkable performance under Daniel’s baton.

The protagonist was Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, whose performance has been significantly better than what we got from the singers in the Barcelona production. I had expected Kwicien to develop further than he has, but he’s an excellent singer all the same, even with some signs of tiredness in the top notes that did not exist a few years back. Ukrainian soprano Olga Pasichnyk (Roxana) does great work on stage but can be questionable in terms of vocal performance. She is on the light side even for a light soprano and her tessitura bottoms out too early. Except in her arioso at the second act, her voice made it into the theatre only with great difficulty. Anne Schwanewilms in Barcelona offered considerably more vocal weight.

The Shepherd was Will Hartmann whose voice is small and doesn’t project, which left his performance as insufficient as it was in Barcelona. Erisi, the confidant to King Roger (and also the supplier of drugs) was adequately covered by Stefan Margita. It was the first performance of the run and the house was filled to about 90 percent capacity. The audience offered a warm reception to the singers but when the creative team stepped on stage, it was as loudly booed as I have ever witnessed at the Teatro Real. Mr. Mortier could be pleased with the fact that ‘his’ Krol Roger made headlines in Spain newspapers. Of course, less than a year ago Plácido Domingo’s Boccanegra also made headlines… but for such different reasons!

José MªIrurzun