in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Review: Karol Szymanowski - King Roger/ Krol Roger, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been asked to review Szymanowski's masterpiece 'King Roger' for 'The Pastoral Review' and include some of the review below. It is a good production, but, for the reasons I give below, I think it misses the point of the opera. It was not as bad as I feared from the pre-publicity but having waited half my life to see this opera it was still a bit of a disappointment. Yet the music was absolutely superb and will not disappoint. Judging from the general roar of critical approval I hope the opera will receive more productions and perhaps some of the points raised below might be taken into account. I attach some photographs and a short youtube extract to whet your appetite if you are not familiar with the work...
best wishes


Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the neglected masterpieces of the late-Romantic Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski. Why this should be is anyone’s guess but the most recent manifestation of his art – the Royal Opera House’s production of his masterpiece King Roger/Król Roger -  has been fascinating for several reasons.

First of all let’s take the music. If you are not at advocate of what one early 20th century critic called the ‘Peach Brandy and Eternity’ school of lush late romanticism then you should look away now. However, if the final stages of Habsburg decadence collapsing into the eerie whispers of atonality appeals then this is the opera for you. Embellished with a range of exotic percussion and chords (the action is loosely set in the Sicily and North Africa of the composer’s imagination) the sound itself is mesmerising. Szymanowski completed Act III (a mere 25 minutes in performance) after a move away from his early late-romantic style and the surprising elegance of these last minutes of the opera are beautifully haunting. Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra were superb and are to be warmly congratulated on the loving realisation of the score. As the titular king, Mariusz Kwiecien excelled, indeed it is hard to see how his performance could be bettered – likewise his supporting cast of Georgia Jarman as his Queen Roxana and Saimir Pirgu as the enigmatic shepherd/Dionysius. Which brings us on to the production...

Most opera-goers today are doggedly resigned to seeing beloved scores trampled and distorted by the idiosyncratic whims of directors. So when I saw the pre-publicity photographs I steeled myself for the usual hiding-behind-the-programme I am accustomed to. Gone is the 12th Century Norman Sicily of the composer’s (and mine) imagination and instead we find ourselves with a giant head (presumably of Roger) within which the action occurs. Kaspar Holten’s conceit of turning the opera into a duel within Roger’s head of the Dionysian (represented by some remarkably agile writhing from the ROH dance team) and the Apollonian – here represented by his ordered books which are finally consumed in flames - seemed to please many but I think was a bit too heavy-handed for the subtle ambiguity of the score and the music. The fact that the choir begins the opera singing praise to God to the same melody that the beautiful shepherd boy adopts when he arrives to the consternation of the court points to the composer’s own ambiguity with regard to the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. The director has also chosen to back-read the rise of fascism into the work justifying this by the fact that Szymanowski suffered himself at the hands of Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917. With regard to the relationship between fascism and libido I have always favoured the interpretation of Wilhelm Reich (who himself suffered at the hands of the Nazis by having his books burnt). Reich characterised the power of fascism as consisting in the repression of desire – not the interpretation of this production. What this then tells us about our own society’s views on sexuality and religion is thus open to question.

Dramatically the opera is problematic, as effectively very little happens and characterisation is thin. In one sense the director is right, this can be seen as an ‘opera of ideas’ – in particular the conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian as found, inter alia, in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (and thence in Britten’s opera and Visconti’s film). Yet, as already mentioned, what is most striking in Szymanowski’s score (and would become apparent later in his life) is that it inhabits a strange twilight zone between the Dionysian and Apollonian/ the Sexual and Spiritual. In this respect, pace the intentions of the director, the opera appears then not to represent a conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian but rather than a synthesis of the two – as evidenced by the King’s final revelatory aria, which following the logic of this production makes very little sense (having been attacked by the Dionysian thugs in the penultimate scene it would make sense if he had died rather than received a vague sort of revelation). By deciding to introduce, in my view, a false polarity into the opera the director misses a key ingredient of this elusive work. Again, as with all great art, this probably says more about our own 21st century attitudes to sexuality and spirituality (and their unhealthy polarisation) than the preoccupations of an earlier age (imagined or real).
To end with, here is a clip from the 2010 Sydney Dance Company's choreographied production. In many ways treating it as a ballet probably resolves the intellectual conflicts I raise above - and it is splendid to look at (dancing nuns and all!). I hope you enjoy this beautiful piece...

No comments:

Post a Comment