Brave King Roger

9 May

King Roger is having its first performances at the Royal Opera House.  I’d seen it before (the Polish National Opera brought it over 10 years ago) but felt I ought to try it again and turned up to the second performance on 6th May.

It’s not a piece that I feel a great affinity with.  I can take or leave Szymanowski’s sound world – a gloop of rather anaemic treacle in the strings overladen with some flashy brass would be one way of characterising it.  That’s certainly unfair but it’s not a sound world that immediately attracts me.  The vocal lines are declamatory and it would be nice to have the occasional tune or even the odd duet or quartet.  It doesn’t draw me in.

Nor does the text, which is an interpretation of Euripides’s Bacchai.  A Shepherd arrives in Roger’s kingdom breaching a doctrine of freedom and converts all the people away from Roger himself.  As the philosphic contents get deeper, so the surtitles become less and less penetrable – making Tippett’s text for A Midsummer Marriage seem like Enid Blyton.  The motivation of characters, their backstory and relationships are underdrawn.  And yet for all that it lasts around an hour and a half (with a rather unnecessary interval taking it up to two hours), it feels longer. So you’ll understand why I wasn’t really best place to enjoy the performance.

For all that, I thought that Kasper Holten did a marvellous job of trying to make the piece accessible.  It’s updated to the time of composition and suggests a political reading of a conventional state having to react to an inspirational outsider and how the decent leader deals with that.  The philosophical side is symbolised by a massive head, which into Roger’s palace and, at the end, the palace is burning rubble and books are burned on it as Roger is beaten up by the Shepherd’s followers.  It looked good and struck me as a really intelligent way of addressing the piece and making it more accessible.  The homosexual subtext is there, but this is seen as a political piece.

The cast was outstanding.  Mariusz Kwiecien is the reigning Roger of the day.  He had evidently recovered from the cold on the first night.  He was in noble, eloquent voice, singing passionately if not, for me, ultimately making the role that interesting.  Georgia Jarman sang glamorously as Roxana, his queen – again, though, what was the relationship between them?  Saimir Pirgu gave the best performance that I have seen from his as the Shepherd.  His voice came across sharply and beautifully.  He sang with brilliance even if I would have liked a slighlty more charismatic figure on the stage.  Kim  Begley was outstanding as Edrisi, the advisor.  He’s a singer who’s been absent for too long and he sang easily and with the assurance you’d expect.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  I was impressed by the orchestral playing – the sound world seemed right, the action progressed fluidly.  I don’t think you could ask for more sympathetic conducting.  The chorus was in strong voice.

So a really strong performance and a fine intelligent production.  I feel bad for finding so little in the work to speak to me and involve my emotions.  For all the skill and commitment, I was left cold.

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