Król Roger, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2015Posted on 2 May 2015
Apollo versus Dionysus — Apollonian/Dionysian dualism — so central to this remarkable work, is brilliantly exposed in Kasper Holten’s intriguing and highly inventive production, the first ever at Covent Garden. He also brings out Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s homoerotic yearnings, using ostensibly naked male dancers.
A standard production might use the composer’s imagined settings of the three acts: the magnificent Byzantine church in Palermo; the huge courtyard of King Roger’s palace (built by the Caliphs and adapted by the Normans); and an ancient Greek amphitheatre on the coast of Sicily. But this would be the outer world, and since the entire action takes place in one night, from sunset in Act I to sunrise in Act III, unconscious forces come into play that Holten cleverly portrays by setting Act II in the interior of Roger’s head. The giant head is ever present on stage, but in the Act II prelude (which follows Act I with no interval) it turns and we see three levels inside. Roger is at mid-level, the naked bodies at the lowest, and Roger’s wife Roxana above, but this arrangement alters. The Dionysian bodies spread all over, emanating confusion and eventually throwing out books that represent Apollonian intellect. In Act III the books are tossed onto a smouldering bonfire that devours them.
King Roger II was the highly enlightened Norman king of Sicily 1130–1154, in whom the well-travelled composer Szymanowski found an excellent vehicle for this musical work — he refused to call it an opera — where East meets West, North meets South, and the reason, order, and sober thought of Apollo fights the mysticism, chaos and emotion of Dionysus. The Greeks wrote dramas on such conflicts — Euripedes’ Medea is one, and his play The Bacchae, where King Pentheus is destroyed in fighting Dionysus for his wife’s affections, is even closer to the story of this opera, though the ending is different. In fact the ending was a source of controversy between the composer and his young cousin the librettist who withdrew from the project. Szymanowski ended up amending the libretto himself.
The story is simple. A shepherd, superbly sung by Saimir Pirgu, arrives in the town attracting followers to his own religion. In this challenge to religious orthodoxy the king demands the shepherd attend the court to answer for himself that very night. “What do they believe in?” gets the response, “They believe in me”, and the shepherd, now a prince of the East, turns the tables. He entrances Roxana, mellifluously and passionately sung by Georgia Jarman, and disturbs the king himself. Act III is the king’s great moment, and Mariusz Kwiecien rose magnificently to the challenge despite suffering from a cold that had limited his vocal power earlier on.
Fine singing, if slightly underpowered, by Kim Begley in the important role of Edrisi (Abu Abdullah Mohammad al-Edrisi), scholar and advisor to the king, with Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko in the minor roles of Archbishop and Deaconess. A terrific performance from the augmented chorus, and Antonio Pappano’s conducting brought out the power and beauty of Szymanowski’s 1926 score.
Excellent designs by Steffan Aarfing, superb lighting by Jon Clark, and suitably disturbing choreography for the naked bodies by Cathy Marston. A non-standard production with no boos at the end is an achievement in itself, but this is much more — a great success for Kasper Holten.
The cheap seats have gone already, but the top price is only £100, so do not miss it. Performances continue on various dates until May 19, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on May 16 — for details click here.