Melinda Hughes dissects Karol Szymanowski's rare tapestry of colours and textures
The music of this rarely performed opera by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski is dreamy, ominous, complex and beautiful. The opening bars come out of nowhere, from the depths of beyond, and develop into some of the most beautiful choral singing I have ever heard. Aided by extra harps, this ominous Byzantine Sanctus transports you to another world. It's like 'Pell’as and M’lisande' meets 'Star Trek' in a Straussian dimension.
The story is set in the 1920s but with strong ancient Greek symbolism, from the classical set to overt Greek tragedy references. The plot is simple: King Roger must punish the Shepherd, a new self-proclaimed prophet who preaches freedom and pleasure, but Roxana, the king's wife, is drawn to the shepherd and pleads for his life. By the end of Act II, the elusive Shepherd has charmed the whole kingdom, who dance a bacchanal, sweeping her away into the night.
There were so many undertones and philosophical layers beneath this simple story: that of church versus state, anarchy vs order, the inner conflict of the king who shuns his wife's advances, perhaps struggling with homosexuality as Szymanowski did. But nothing was spelled out. Touches of Russell Brand appeared as the shepherd taunted and teased but spoke words of little worth, only riddles. As the opera developed, anarchy began to reign with the burning of the books, with its Nazi allusions.
Director Kasper Holten apologized at the start of Act III because Mariusz Kwiecien, who was singing the title role, was suffering from a cold, but his powerful aria at the end of Act III was such a triumph I can only imagine he had taken himself into another dimension to move us this way, such was the power and impact of his phenomenal singing.
Equally, Georgia Jarman as Roxana had us spellbound with her effortless dreamy oriental coloratura. Her voice is rich and beautiful with impressive metallic overtones for those silvery top notes.
Saimir Pirgu, astutely cast as the cavalier seducer, totally captivated as the shepherd; his tenor line sits high, so it was an impressive performance.
Steffen Aarfing's design is impressive: a giant head dominates the stage, its mottled face ever changing. Inside this, the king's troubled mind turns and the opera unfolds inside his head on ego and super-ego levels.
What impressed me the most was the staging of a nucleus of writhing bodies choreographed by Cathy Marston. These undulating beings acted as a subconscious organism reacting to events and playing out the inner workings of Roger's mind, before morphing into an orgy of explosive proportions.
This short and magical opera is certainly one that should become part of the repertory. Musically and dramatically it is stunning. Conductor Antonio Pappano drew out such a tapestry of colours and textures which the orchestra seemed to relish playing. This opera is like no other and I'm still haunted by it.
Kr’l Roger runs at the Royal Opera House until 19 May