An intense, exotic production of a Polish rarity
Out of the darkness, softly beaten gongs prelude a full chorus singing an exotic hymn rooted in the ancient sound world of the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, with tantalising slowness, an enormous head is gradually lifted until it fills the stage, surrounded by tiered galleries from which the children, courtiers and religious orders look down on their austere ruler. King Roger may be all-powerful, but his frustrated wife Roxana, like the rest of the court, has fallen under the spell of the Shepherd and his hedonistic philosophy.
Is it an opera or an oratorio? Who knows, but Karol Szymanowski’s psychological musical drama is set in the composer’s native Polish to a ravishing score. Based on Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae’, it depicts the struggle between Apollonian virtue and Dionysian hedonism. Director Kasper Holten’s Freudian reading and staging takes us literally inside King Roger’s head (or is it the composer’s?). With the boffins upstairs, and the virtually naked young men writhing beneath, they reveal a homoerotic proclivity in the mind of a frigid, married king – controversial given the opera was premiered in 1920s Poland.
Playing the familiar title role, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień delivers a powerful performance confidently in his native language, while Roxana is convincingly portrayed by American soprano Georgia Jarman. As the Shepherd, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu sings competently but cuts a somewhat pedestrian figure, failing to radiate any sense of decadence or menace and, along with Kwiecień, regularly swamped by the surging orchestra and ecstatic chorus.
Full marks to the team of set designer Steffen Aarfing and lighting designer Jon Clark, who contribute enormously to the psychodrama, especially in the third act when the large head slowly and visibly seems to decay before our eyes.
And the chorus is on top form as ever, while conductor Sir Antonio Pappano lovingly draws out the rich and complex harmonies of this mysterious late-Romantic score, one that blends north African rhythms and Byzantine church music with the folk music of Poland. Do take advantage of the Royal Opera’s cut-price tickets and luxuriate.