Szymanowski's 'Król Roger'
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
The National Santa Cecilia Academy opened its 2017-2018 season on 5 October 2017 with a performance of Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger(King Roger), a rarely performed opera, even though it was recently staged in London under the musical direction of Antonio Pappano. Enthralled by the opera, Pappano is conducting it at the National Santa Cecilia Academy (5-9 October 2017) and will conduct it again at La Scalain 2021. In Italy, the opera has been staged only in Palermo (where the plot is set). I was in the audience on 5 October, having previously seen the opera in Palermo (2005) and in Warsaw (2006).
The National Santa Cecilia Academy is designed to perform symphoniesand chamber music. It seldom stages operas. Thus, the production was what the French call une mise en espace: the singers act, but not in costume. The sets were replaced by videos, and this was the weak point of the evening. I have recently reviewed opera productions where videos had a major role: Infinite Disappearances, 5 October 2017, Grand Tableaux, 1 October, Philosophy and Theology, 19 September, and The Humanity of Wozzeck, 26 August 2017). In these and other productions I can confirm that the videos were perfectly in line with the libretto and the music. In this production they were not, even though Szymanowski had written very detailed instructions for sets and costumes. The locations of the action (the Royal Palace in Palermo, the gardens, and the Greek theatre in Taormina) could have provided the opportunity for superb videos.
The videos, produced by MASBEDO — the acronym of a visual art company in Milan — had nothing to do with either the plot or the libretto. MASBEDO videos are often utilized as a support to pop and rock concerts. I would advise them to stick to that. In Król Roger, they were just a disturbance.
I would consider Król Roger a late romantic opera with infiltration from Debussy and Stravinsky. However, Szymanowski is only a cousin of Korngold and Schreker, quite far from the heights reached by Zemlinski. The plot basically concerns the conflict between the Christian church and a pagan creed of beauty and pleasure proclaimed by a shepherd. Queen Roxana is seduced by the allurement of the shepherd. She and most of the Court follow the young man. The King is attracted as well, but in the end stands alone. A source of inspiration is Euripides' Bacchae. The opera was also a way for Szymanowski to deal with his own inner problem as a gay in a society where homosexuality was strictly forbidden. In Król Roger, this private part is mostly reflected in the dances of the second act where there are echoes of Mediterranean music and a gentle stylized counterpoint.
The musical execution was excellent. The opera was performed without intermission; all together the three acts last ninety minutes. The singers were also good actors: Lukasz Golinski (King Roger), Lauren Fagan (Queen Roxana), Edgaras Montvidas (the Shepherd), Marco Spotti (The Archbishop), Helena Rasker (The Deaconess) and Kurt Azesberger (Idriss, the Court's Arab sage).
The orchestra, the chorus, the children's chorus under Pappano's direction (and for the choral part that of Ciro Visco) perfectly rendered Szymanowski's ambiguous atmospheres.
The audience applauded warmly. Even though troubled by the videos.