SZYMANOWSKI King Roger
Kasper Holten’s first two stagings for the Royal Opera were, respectively, afflicted by too much emphasis on cerebral concept and too much emphasis on visual effects. That his third show at Covent Garden – the company’s first production of Szymanowski’s 1926 opera – came good is paradoxically because concept and design loom larger than ever. Yet both work together to embrace the tensions of the Polish composer’s evocative score.
As seen in the theatre in May 2015, the idée fixe of this show – an enormous sculpted head designed by Steffen Aarfing – understandably monopolised one’s attention. The effect of this giant bonce is different as captured on Opus Arte’s Blu-ray/DVD. The coup de théâtre is less arresting, but through more (filmed) focus on Mariusz Kwiecien´’s performance in the title-role and the society he spars against, Holten’s dramaturgical thinking also comes into sharper relief.
This King Roger begins as the lionised symbol of religious and state power but by the end of the opera he is a more powerful man despite having lost his ability to command either office. If most interpretations of Szymanowski’s work dwell on the composer’s sexuality, equating the Shepherd who disrupts Roger’s court and his mind with repressed desire, Holten has other ideas: liberation comes not from following Saimir Pirgu’s grinning prophet in his golden frock-coat but from understanding your own mind. So, enter the enormous head, with its intellect tucked behind the eyes in the form of a library, and its libido – some naked men in beige pants – crawling around the basement in Cathy Marston’s suitably twitchy choreography.
True, it’s not dazzlingly subtle. Nor is Szymanowski’s music, however, captured here by Antonio Pappano with superb attention to both the iridescent orchestration and – more tricky this – its theatrical energy. The orchestra play with silky finesse and the chorus are on especially dazzling form for the intoxicating climaxes. I’m not a fan of director’s commentaries on DVDs at the best of times, and it’s certainly no way to watch an opera. Yet dipping into the extra feature on this release, in which Holten and Pappano discuss the work while it’s performed, is rewarding: the two clearly strove to realise each other’s priorities as well as their own.
The performances are all first-rate, Kwiecien´ and Pirgu matching each other in endurance and vocal beauty, Georgia Jarman’s Queen Roxana tender and supple in her Act 2 siren song and Kim Begley’s Edrisi as firm a voice of reason as Szymanowski permits in an opera that’s always heated to boiling point. Ian Russell’s film direction only loses its way when he permits a sort of ‘orgy-cam’, filmed from somewhere inside Roger’s head as those buff chaps living inside his mind bump and grind against Jarman. She looks, on closer inspection, rather unimpressed.