Opera Australia is bringing an acclaimed international production of this lesser-known 20th century Polish opera to Sydney
The greatest Polish composer of his generation, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), avoided using the word ‘opera’ to describe his labour of six years, Król Roger. It does lack plot: its conflicts are largely political, religious and personal questions in the mind of the title character King Roger. Its appeal and emotional force come from Szymanowski’s lush, rhapsodic, highly idiosyncratic music, which fuses late 19th century styles like an early Hollywood soundtrack, but with dark orchestral colour that is laser-cut by piercing voices. It is rarely performed; the Australian premiere this month is a landmark 2015 production from the Royal Opera House by their current director Kasper Holten. Opera or not, it is a startlingly unusual artwork.
The historical Norman King Roger II was crowned King of Sicily in 1130 and made Palermo an important nexus of the Christian, Hellenic and Arab worlds, but Szymanowski’s labile hero has less to do with medieval history than with the composer’s philosophical zeitgeist, such as Freud’s tensions between the greedy id and the censorious superego, or Nietzsche’s dualities of irrationality versus reason. Designer Steffen Aarfing conveys this in simple 1920s costumes and a set reminiscent of the abstract but vaguely threatening metaphysical painting of Szymanowski's contemporary Giorgio de Chirico.
The plot is thin and odd: Queen meets pagan evangelist, King investigates evangelist, King transforms. Its structure is a Hegelian clash of cultures: each of the three acts has a geographic focus and musical style to match, starting with the Byzantine in Palermo Cathedral, then challenged by a pagan middle-eastern antithesis to Christianity, then resolving backwards into a Greco-Roman epiphany where Roger finally sees the light in the form of the god Apollo. We could say it’s like Tosca on LSD, but it’s probably like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The singing, even in Polish, is so arresting that the ponderous philosophical issues flashing across the surtitles tend to be neglected. The most conspicuous soloist is the rising star Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who also played the Shepherd in the original London production. This nameless antagonist is a Trump-scale multilevel threat to Roger – to his Christian faith and morals, to his authority, and to his wife Roxana (played beautifully by local star Lorina Gore). Strangely, Roger rejects the advice of the Archbishop (the magnificent Russian bass Gennadi Dubinsky) to punish the charismatic Shepherd as a heretic, and decides instead to secretly invite him home.
Will ecstasy triumph? In Holten’s overtly Freudian staging, a cluster of mud-streaked half-naked male dancers seethe from the basement, bewildering and crawling over everyone. Roger’s personality disintegrates under the Shepherd’s Dionysiac pressure for pleasure. In Aarfing’s design Roger’s multi-level castle is actually inside a gigantic head, though it’s not clear whose. Holten doesn’t attempt to explain away Szymanowski’s unsettling mysteries; his achievement is to convey them clearly.
Australian baritone Michael Honeyman gave a commendable interpretation of the King’s multiple internal conflicts and their unexplained sudden resolution; however, the character of King Roger (and the whole structurally inadequate plot) also requires concentrated buy-in from the audience, investing emotionally in some real estate very unfamiliar to almost everyone. Fortunately a massive boost is provided by ace conductor Andrea Molino and the excellent Opera Australia Orchestra and OA Chorus, and Szymanowski’s rich and intense score is surprisingly brief: under 90 minutes plus an interval.
Reception on opening night was highly enthusiastic, so if Opera in the Domain left you with more than the desire to sing cheerfully along with Figaro, don’t miss this rare chance to explore some of the most mysterious music ever written, in a production none of us is likely ever to see bettered. Listen closely to the Shepherd’s alluring promises and you may be entranced, perhaps even transformed like Roger.
See what else is in the Opera Australia 2017 season.