Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Impressive staging and presentation of a master-work

Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger (King Roger) was written in the period 1918-1924, and received its premiere performance in Warsaw in 1926. The work is a skillful blend of psychological, political and religious themes, but it’s a personal testament as well. In this complex master-work of the operatic stage the composer presents lifelong philosophical musings, and his own sexual longings, in an idealized Mediterranean setting common to northern European artists since Goethe and Schumann.

The opera is full of multicultural references and effects, with an unusually broad range of influences apparent in its libretto (by the composer and his cousin Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz) and the music itself. Some that occur to me, or have been suggested in my reading, are Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and Thomas Mann on the literary side; Stravinsky’s early ballets and Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal on the musical side; and Euripedes’ Bacchantes (Szymanowski’s explicit model) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear on the dramatic side. The over-arching philosophical structure comes, of course, from Nietschze’s dichotomy between the reasonable Apollonian and the instinctive Dionysian natures of humans and Gods. Finally, the religious ecosystem of the opera is a syncretistic mixture of Eastern Mystery rites, ancient and Byzantine Greek and ancient and Catholic Roman faiths, with Muslim influences from the Sicilian locale. As Pater put it in Marius the Epicurean, “A blending of all the religions of the ancient world had been accomplished.”

All of this might come crashing down in an eclectic heap were it not for Szymanowski’s extraordinarily cogent libretto and his arresting sound world and musical development. Even then, there are lots of ways a production of King Roger could founder, from problems with the cast, chorus, orchestra, production conception or stage design. Luckily, all of those components are top drawer in this excellent recent Royal Opera House Covent Garden production headed by Director Kasper Holten.

The principals are especially good. Kim Begley is very effective as Roger’s advisor, part Tom Hagen consigliere, part Sigmund Freud therapist. Georgia Jarman is always sexy as the Queen, though often slightly demented, and she’s great in Roxana’s big second act aria - the most sensuous 20th century music for soprano until Villa-Lobos’s 5th Bachianas Brasileiras. Salmir Pirgu is a delightful Shepherd, coming on full-charismatic guru, then pulling back as a detached, cynical con-man. In the final scene he channels the Commendatore from Don Giovanni, calling the protagonist to a different kind of end:
I'm calling you to an endless journey,
to a joyous dance!
To me! To me!
I'm calling you!
As the dramaturg John Lloyd Davies points out in his excellent liner note essay, the work is very much about the titular character, and this production of King Roger is blessed with the gifted singer and actor Mariusz Kwiecień, who presented a similarly tortured main character in the Royal Opera’s superb recent production of Don Giovanni (another collaboration with Holten.) Every bit of the King’s doubts and enthusiasms, his longings and hesitations, is projected on Kwiecień’s face or through his voice. The entire production is exceptional, from Holten’s concept to the stage and lighting design and choreography. The singing (and acting) of the chorus is strong, as is the playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano. The Opus Arte presentation makes full use of the audio and visual capabilities of Blu ray and includes fascinating special features, most interestingly an audio commentary by Holten and Pappano. This is a demonstration disc in so many ways, and most importantly a demonstration of the enduring dramatic and intellectual power of opera.

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