Karel Szymanowski’s 1924 opera Król Roger is surely the only opera in Polish in anything like the standard rep. Maybe that’s one reason it’s not performed all that often because it’s really rather good and Kasper Holten’s 2015 production at Covent Garden makes a pretty good case for it. The story is set in 12th century Sicily, though as we shall see , that really doesn’t matter. The Church is complaining to the king about a heretical prophet, the Shepherd, who is leading people astray with a strange doctrine of Love and Nature. Roger’s queen is much taken with the Shepherd and helps protect him. The king, who is clearly battling demons rooted in a bloody past, vacillates. Eventually he’s persuaded and the opera closes with Roger singing an ecstatic hymn to the rising sun.
I don’t think the exact historical context matters a whole lot here though the libretto is pretty specific about Byzantine and Arab elements. We are dealing with pretty basic dualities; nature vs culture, revelation vs authority, id vs superego. Holten strips things down to focus on these elements. It’s in fairly undefined modern dress. The set is made up of galleries and gantries. The one specific element is a giant head that sits centre stage during the first act and which revolves at the scene change so that Act 2 literally takes place in Roger’s head. There are writhing demons in the head’s “basement”. In Act 3 the head is replaced by smouldering embers. One could argue that the symbolism is being laid on with a trowel but it works pretty well.
It’s a really good score too with distinct sound worlds for the three acts. It’s all fairly chromatic but not at all difficult to listen too. So in Act 1 we can hear both meditation and conflict in the music but it gets distinctly more direct during the inner debates of Act 2 while Act 3 builds up tension to end in what conductor Anthony Pappano describes as “a blaze of C major”. The vocal worlds are distinct too with Roger, almost to the end, getting a fairly aggressive questing line while his queen, Roxana, mostly sings a line of ecstatic beauty. The Shepherd alternates between the two. Sometimes he sings beautifully and at others he seems to be, musically, contesting Roger’s authority.
This performance is anchored by Marius Kwiecień as Roger in what has become one of his signature roles. It’s a tour de force. He’s well matched by tenor Saimir Pirgu who looks the part (the Shepherd is “beautiful”) and can sing with great beauty but darken things up when required. The more ethereal, and rather high, music of Roxana is quite beautifully sung by Georgia Jarman who is also entirely convincing as the queen who wants to guide her consort to a happier place. There’s good work from Kim Begley as the sage who is a kind of rational mediator between the two sides of the king’s personality. Pappano conducts and one feels that this is music that he is fully inside and absolutely believes in. He produces a fabulous sound from the very large orchestra and chorus ranging from barely there to raging.
The disk is a pretty good package too. Ian Russell’s video direction tells the story well enough and he’s backed up by a good quality picture and very fine DTS sound. I watched it on DVD but Blu-ray is available and no doubt has the usual advantages. The extras on the disk are well worth watching with useful contributions from both Holten and Pappano. The booklet was missing on my copy so I can’t comment on that. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. There’s also a track with running commentary by Holten and Pappano.
Perhaps surprisingly there is serious competition for this disk. David Pountney’s strongly cast and equally abstract take from Bregenz is also available on Blu-ray. I haven’t seen it but if it’s as good as Pountney’s other work at Bregenz I’d imagine it is also worth a look. In any event if you are not familiar with this piece I would recommend it highly.