Opera Australia really has broken new territory in this recent production, mounting the first opera in Polish the company has ever performed. They could scarcely have chosen a better work than Syzmanowski’s Król Roger, which the composer conceived in the light of travel in the Mediterranean and developed with the co-operation of his cousin and co-librettist Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Work began on the opera in 1918 and concluded in 1924, with the premiere given in 1926.
Syzmanowski’s opera — the composer preferred to call it a “mysterium” — is certainly a strange but beguiling beast. Divided into three brief acts, it lasts a mere hour and a half. If a first glance gives the impression that this is one of those operas, particularly common at the turn of the twentienth century, in which nothing happens, a second glance confirms that this is a work of deep and rich symbolism, gifted with an exceptional libretto, depicting the inner psychological struggle of a man. That struggle, given Szymanowski’s equivocal ending, can be read on multiple levels — is this an essay on the perennial battle between the Apollonian and Dionysiac, the subject of Britten’s Death in Venice, or the image of a man fallen prey to demagoguery, a story for our times, or a condemnation of the moral strictures of Christianity and the advocacy of an “oriental” sensuality? Syzmanowski’s music, the unlikely child of Chopin and Skryabin, seems the perfect accompaniment to this deeply ambiguous story, filled with odd instrumental conjunctions and turns of harmony; even when Szymanowski is doing something ‘normal’, as in the pseudo-Byzantine chant that opens the opera, the effect is destablising, as though we were seeing something familiar in a distorting mirror.
Kasper Holten’s directorial conception of this work is little short of a miracle. A gigantic and menacing yet enigmatic man’s head dominates the stage in the first act, pointing up that this is a drama of the mind, and the chorus, whipped up by the Archbishop and the Deaconness, cries out both its condemnation of, and support for, the Shepherd from boxes in a stadium, a cross between a Greek chorus and the mob in a Roman amphitheatre. In the second act, the head swivels to reveal Roger singing to us from within his own thoughts while seething dancers pulsate and pant, emblems of his thought and the suppression of his desire. Later, they boil up through the head, casting books down onto the stage in a rejection of the rational. The third act takes place in a ruined theatre, illuminated by a burning pile of books around which Roger’s subjects dance in a self-forgetting orgy. The opera closes with a blaze of light, reminiscent of that accompanying the opening of the Fifth Door in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the gateway to self-annihilating horrors.
An opera so heavily concentrated in the world of ideas could so easily become a bloodless, esoteric and undramatic affair, close to the world of the allegorical oratorio of the early seventeenth century. Fortunately, graced with a fine complement of singers, there was no chance of that here.
The opera is effectively a battle of wills between King Roger, played by Michael Honeyman and the Shepherd, played by Arthur Espiritu. The Shepherd is something of a cypher, changing little through the course of the drama, and Espirtu lets the character speak for himself without larding the role up in any way. The senusousness of the music itself is the means of the Shepherd’s seduction of Roger, quite apart the content of what he says, a classic case of the method and not the message. Only the Shepherd’s changing costume gives the audience any sense of how dangerous this figure is.
Roger’s is a stronger character — in a sense, the only really strong character in the opera — and Michael Honeyman is fully invested in it, tracing the full character arc from the stern but fair-minded champion of orthodoxy in the first act, through the torment of the second act (brilliantly realised in Holten’s deployment of dancers) and the desolation and resignation of the final act. The role is evidently highly taxing, but Honeyman scarcely flags. Indeed, he hardly can, as Szymanowski reserves his great moment, Roger’s hymn to the sun, until the very end of the opera. A fine performance in every way.
Lorina Gore’s Roxana is really the “third wheel” in the opera, with neither Szymanowski nor Iwaszkiewicz evidently committed to fleshing her out in any particular way, notwithstanding Roger’s supposed devotion to her and the important role she seems to play in the political and confessional machinations that lie behind the condemnation and ultimate acceptance of the Shepherd’s message. Gore is certainly committed to the slight material with which she has to work in a performance with only very few flaws. Particularly impressive was her wordless hymn of devotion to the Shepherd in the second act as she forcefully conveyed the sublimation of her own will to that of the Shepherd.
Of the minor roles, the most impressive was that of the Deaconness, played by Dominica Matthews, a real study of a hateful demagogue. Her partner in crime is not her ecclesiastical superior, the Archbishop (played by Gennadi Dubinsky) but actually the chorus, who collectively navigate superbly the journey from the Shepherd’s condemners to his supporters.
It’s pretty rarely the case that opera productions, whether domestic or foreign, get everything right. King Roger was one of those that did, and is a real testament to what riches there are in some of the stranger byways of operatic history.
John Weretka reviewed Opera Australia’s production of King Roger (or Król Roger) on May 19, 2017.