United Kingdom Szymanowski, Król Roger: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 1.5.2015 (MB)
Archbishop – Alan Ewing
Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko
King Roger – Mariusz Kwiecień
Edrisi – Kim Begley
Roxana – Georgia Jarman
Shepherd – Saimir Pirgu
Kasper Holten (director)
Steffen Aarfing (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Luke Halls (video)
Cathy Marston (choreography)
John Lloyd Davies (dramaturgy)
At last, Szymanowski’s masterpiece, King Roger, has reached Covent Garden. With one, sadly predictable, exception, it receives excellent treatment too. What a joy it is to see staged here a work, which, like Janáček’s bizarrely ignored operas, is no longer than it need be, and so handsomely repays attention in every minute of its mere ninety minutes. (Incidentally, placing an interval after the second act was surely a mistake; this is a work considerably shorter than Salome or Elektra, and nothing was gained by having to step outside for half an hour.)
Kasper Holten’s production is relatively straightforward, but none the worse for that. Save for gentle costume updating to the time of composition, it is difficult to imagine self-styled ‘traditionalists’ having anything much to worry about. A gigantic King Roger’s head, in different states, inhabits the centre of the stage. Are we to understand that the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus is entirely within his head? Probably not; surely there remains some important element of the social. However, a reminder that this is, amongst other things, his conflict is no bad thing. Oppressive, patriarchal Orthodoxy surrounds the realm of the personal in the first act.
In the second, the head turns around so as to reveal, if not strictly speaking, the inner palace courtyard of the libretto, then something pretty close: royal quarters, in which books are prominent. (Is that, ultimately, whence these dangerous ideas come? Nietzsche, perhaps?) In the basement are writhing bodies, refugees from Tannhäuser’s Venusberg – which, in terms of the work, musically as well as conceptually, is very much what they should be. Cathy Marston’s choreography did little for me, I am afraid, but having recently endured again the absurdly excessive dance of Sasha Waltz’s Tannhäuser, there was relief for me to be had in lesser intrusion.
The third act, rightly, presents ruins, both social and personal. The head has been destroyed under whatever new dispensation it is the Dionysian Shepherd offers. Not for the first time, I thought of Henze’s The Bassarids in Christof Loy’s Munich production. The dangers of this brave new world are clear, for, not only have the erstwhile faithful blindly followed their new master, they blithely throw a few surviving books upon the pyre. To destroy culture is cheap, as inconoclasts from Alexandria to Rupert Murdoch to ISIS have known all too well; the cost is crippling. Mere hedonism is not the way forward; the blinding light at the end – here as simple and as striking as in Mariusz Treliński’s production, which I saw in Edinburgh in 2008 – shows that another path for Roger, and for us, will not be easy; it may not even be right. We need, however, to try. If, sadly, as in Treliński’s staging, Szymanowski’s overt homo-eroticism is played down, then there are other ideas well worth pondering: not hammered home, for such tends not to be Holten’s way of operating, but more open-ended, which seems quite apt for the work and, in particular, for its unresolved, perhaps irresolvable, conclusion. After all, the final C major chord is no more convincing as affirmation than that in Elektra; the Shepherd’s strains remain.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting proved somewhat disappointing, although he certainly seemed aware of the difficulties of balance within the orchestra and for the most part steered a judicious enough path in that respect. However, if not so bedevilled by stopping and starting as his Wagner, Pappano’s account nevertheless seemed incapable for the most part of rising above the indifference of mezzo piano, to misquote Pierre Monteux. The orchestra here is defiantly post-Wagnerian, at least as much a character as anything we see on stage; here, despite some truly excellent playing, Pappano reduced it to mere accompaniment. There was too much of a tendency to meander, too: a hostage to fortune to those who would claim Szymanowski’s world amorphous. It is not, but it requires a more comprehending conductor to present to full advantage its golden tapestry in motion.
Choral singing, however, was excellent, from, to quote Stephen Downes’s excellent programme note, that ‘majestic, awe-inspiring chorus’ onwards. Indeed, in that’ Byzantine Sanctus sung in harmonies that evoke archaic primitivism and power,’ the basses – a sizable extra chorus had been enlisted – offered a highly convincing impression of their Eastern European confrères. Weight and sensitive diction were, throughout, shown to be anything but opposing tendencies. Renato Balsadonna and his singers deserve great credit, not least for discretely posing the question of to what extent we might consider this work a staged oratorio. It is a tendency rather than an identity, but a worthwhile tendency to raise, especially given the subject matter.
The cast was excellent too. At its heart stood Mariusz Kwiecień’s Roger. Although an ailing Kwiecień sounded – if only relatively – a little tired at the end of the second and third acts, that in no way detracted from the thoughtful heroism of his portrayal. It is a role with which, of course, he has a lengthy association; indeed, on this occasion, it seemed made for him, so close were his identification and projection of the King’s conflicting voices. This was certainly not a Roger, even when unwell, who stood in need of Pappano’s quenching the fires of Szymanowski’s orchestra. The rest of the cast seemed no more in need of that. Saimir Pirgu offered an alluring, properly dangerous, ultimately yet prematurely triumphant Shepherd, whom many would have followed. The alterity of his Lydian-inflected music, deliberately non-developmental, ‘an enclosed, complete and self-referential musical system’ (Downes), made its dramatic point strongly, even without the overwhelming orchestral contribution that might have been present. Georgia Jarman’s Roxana certainly seemed clear why she was doing so, yet not without affection for her consort; one sensed that she would like to have included him. Her second-act aria was as ravishingly sensual as anyone might decently – or indecently – have hoped. Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko, and Kim Begley all distinguished themselves in the smaller roles. Old Szymanowski hands and newcomers alike should hasten to the Royal Opera House.