Following the Shepherd

Szymanowski – Król Roger

Roger – Mariusz Kwiecien

Roxana – Agnieszka Bochenek-Osiecka

Shepherd – José Luis Sola

Edrisi – Francisco Vas

Archbishop – Felipe Bou

Deaconess – Iryna Zhytynska

Leioa Kantika Korala, Córo de Ópera de Bilbao

Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa / Lukasz Borowicz. Stage director – Michał Znaniecki

Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao. Friday, November 30th, 2012.

This was an exceptional evening. It promised much – a singer who is the finest exponent of the title role today, an experienced conductor and producer and a strong cast and it certainly delivered. The production itself was set in modern dress with acts 1 and 2 located in the king’s apartments. The people were located at the back of the stage behind screens dressed in black, watching the events in the apartment itself. Sadly, this had a negative effect at those wonderful choral moments at the start as the chorus didn’t quite have the impact it should have given they were so far back. Still, it certainly set up a very clear delineation between the public and private spheres so inherent in the piece. There was serious sexual tension between Mariusz Kwiecien’s Roger and José Luis Sola’s Shepherd from the very beginning. The constant flirtation and growing infatuation were beautifully done with Roger starting out as stiff and emotionally repressed and gradually unravelled during the course of the evening. The bacchanal was staged as quite a tame orgy (I think but can’t confirm as it wasn’t quite clear from where I was sitting) with dancers wearing the same clothes as Roxana gradually undressing to reveal themselves as men. Some might say it was a bit too obvious to bring out the gay subtext of the story but it felt absolutely right. The final act was staged in a bar where Roger and Edrisi (now the barman) drown their sorrows thinking of what might have been. Roger’s hymn to the sun apparently showed his vision of the afterlife with flashbacks to his life. There is a lot to capture but it really was an excellent show, one which brought the story to life in a clear way.

Vocally, it was very strong too. Roger has become Kwiecien’s signature role and it’s a role that suits him well dramatically. Vocally, he was superb – clearly at home in the language and the idiom. Agnieszka Bochenek-Osiecka’s Roxana was somewhat acidic in Act 1 but bloomed beautifully in Act 2 and gave a delicious account of her song. The Shepherd’s music is quite unforgiving and José Luis Sola sang it beautifully. It’s not a role I would like to hear him sing often as it is exceptionally punishing but he was a haunting dramatic presence. Smaller roles were well taken, especially Francisco Vas’ Edrisi. The children’s chorus was superb, the adult chorus good although they definitely needed more bodies to carry over the huge orchestra.

The orchestra itself played magnificently and threw themselves into Szymanowski’s soundworld fully. Lukasz Borowicz’s sensitive conducting gave the singers plenty of space but also didn’t hold back at the big moments. Tempi were very well-chosen.

This was a superb show and one I would very much like to see again. It is a coproduction with the Teatr Wielki in Poznán and certainly merits a visit to see it performed on its home turf. King Roger is a piece that has only really become a repertoire work over the last 10 years. It is an exceptionally beautiful score and one which perfectly encapsulates the conflict between public duty and personal desire. This was an exceptional performance of this wonderful piece.

UPDATE 2012/12/2: Two days on and I still can’t get King Roger out of my mind.  I don’t think my review actually did justice to Kwiecien’s performance – it was unquestionably one of the greatest performances I have seen on an opera stage in 20 years of opera-going.  Just the way that he encapsulated the gradual unravelling of this character from stiff leader to exhausted drunk, was just remarkable.  That sexual tension between him and the shepherd and the latent desire and the implicit knowing that what he was doing would lead to his world crumbling and the physical portrayal of it was just remarkable.  What also impressed me so much was the way that at the very end of the piece, you could see Kwiecien’s body shaking with the force of the sound produced by the orchestra.  If it hasn’t been filmed, can I please beg someone who can make it possible to record it for posterity?  There was so much detail in the production that it really needs a second viewing. Sadly, I won’t be able to go see it a second time in Bilbao but I’ll be keeping an eye on the theatre in Poznan to see if he will be doing it there. Mariusz Kwiecien’s King Roger is undoubtedly one of the greatest operatic portrayals of today.


As Król Roger with José Luis Sola’s Shepherd in Bilbao in 2012. © E Moreno-Esquibel/ABAO-OLBE

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