The Struggle: Król Roger at the Royal Opera House

Szymanowski – Król Roger

Roger – Mariusz Kwiecień

Roksana – Georgia Jarman

Shepherd – Saimir Pirgu

Edrisi – Kim Begley

Archbishop – Alan Ewing

Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano

Stage director – Kasper Holten.

Royal Opera House, London.  Friday, May 1st, 2015

This was the first performance of Król Roger at the Royal Opera House and for it they engaged the leading interpreter of the title role of today.  Having participated in productions in Madrid, Paris, Santa Fe and Bilbao, it was London’s turn to hear Mariusz Kwiecień’s Roger.  His performance of the work in Bilbao in 2012 will go down as one of the greatest evenings I have ever had in an opera house.  Performed in a highly intelligent staging that penetrated the heart of the work, it stayed with me for days, weeks even.  In fact I can still see it vividly in my mind’s eye even now.  I had high hopes for tonight.  Kasper Holten, whose Copenhagen Ring was so revelatory, I have found his recent productions disappointing for various reasons although others have loved them.  Ultimately, any thoughts I do offer are invariably highly personally coloured by my own experiences and background.  It would be idle for anybody to suggest that opera criticism is anything but.  Everything is subjective, a result of the moment, experiences and training.

PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

On the whole I found that this was Holten’s most successful staging so far for the Royal Opera.  It had clearly been thought about and a lot of work had gone into it.  The opening was stunning – emerging from darkness, the opening chorus was illustrated with a large head gradually coming into focus.  The first act showed Roger as distant, in the second, the head revolved and we were given an insight into what was inside, in the third it was gone, as if Roger had completely lost his senses.  The problem is that I found it somewhat heavy handed – books were thrown and burned to signify the losing of reason and abandonment to pleasure.  I’m not quite sure that we were given the context in which Roger was operating, nor the implications of his loss of reason.  The gay subtext of the piece was certainly present, though again, I’m not sure whether it was resolved satisfactorily.  A corps of almost-naked male dancers was seen in Roger’s basement in act 2.  They were seen to gradually take over Roger’s actions as he abandoned himself to his true nature.  Yet at the end, Roger was alone with Roksana as if to suggest that he could never quite escape the closet.  I’m not quite convinced all the ideas added up, but what I am happy with is that Holten concentrated on creating a show where the focus was on the singers rather that video or dancers doubling the characters.  Consequently, this was for me a much more satisfying experience than his other productions at this address.

PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

There were some fascinating stage pictures – when the Shepherd appears in act 2, the dancers moved aside to let him in creating a striking visual effect.  The set, designed by Steffen Aarfing, was also impressive – a semi-circle with balconies for the chorus with the large head in the centre, transformed with the head smashed into pieces for the third act.  Personenregie was efficient – the chorus wasn’t used in the most imaginative way, but there were interesting interactions between characters in the sense that they didn’t always quite relate to each other.  There, I feel Holten made an important point, that of the fact that this is a work about a man who doesn’t quite understand his relationship with others and with himself.

MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

Musically there was much that was satisfying.  At first Mariusz Kwiecień sounded a little on the dry side and like he was pacing himself, understandably, keeping something for the big final scene.  At the interval Holten appeared to announce that Kwiecień was in fact unwell but would continue to sing.  When he reappeared for the final act he sang with increased freedom, the voice ringing out, the burnished tone ever present and endlessly long phrases.  He gave us a final scene of glorious abandon, giving everything to the piece and the character.  It goes without saying that Kwiecień is a superb actor and he proved it again tonight.  He played the uptight leader and charted his gradual loss of control with harrowing immediacy.  What I also appreciate in his singing is his total union of text and music.  Singing in his native language, he truly made every word count, so much so that even though I don’t speak Polish, it was absolutely clear what he was singing about.

ALAN EWING AS ARCHBISHOP, MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER, SAIMIR PIRGU AS SHEPHERD, GEORGIA JARMAN AS ROXANA (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
ALAN EWING AS ARCHBISHOP, MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER, SAIMIR PIRGU AS SHEPHERD, GEORGIA JARMAN AS ROXANA (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

Saimir Pirgu’s Shepherd was sung with easy lyricism and a bright, open top.  He shaded the higher notes most impressively.  It’s a difficult role that demands an ease at the top with a weight of sound throughout – Pirgu certainly has it at the top.  A notable portrayal.  Making her Royal Opera debut, US soprano Georgia Jarman also impressed with her easy top.  Her song was sung with great delicacy.  Phrasing was slightly lumpy but that could well have been first night nerves.  Kim Begley’s apparently ageless tenor was in great shape as Edrisi.  Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko were more than acceptable in the smaller roles.

PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

The chorus sang with fine commitment and threw themselves into the work.  Tuning in the opening chorus was not quite unanimous but their dedication was unquestionable.  The orchestra gave us some beautiful pianissimo playing and the fragrance of Szymanowski’s score was certainly present.  Antonio Pappano’s conducting was unobtrusive in the first two acts however I found that he failed to build up the tension in the third act in the way it needed.  Ultimately, the final scene needs to feel as if it’s the culmination of everything that has come before.  It needs an unbearable tension that has no choice other than to be released.  I didn’t quite feel that tonight, the closing pages felt added on rather than part of an integral whole.  I think part of the blame lies with the 30-minute interval placed between acts 2 and 3 which meant that much tension was lost.

PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

There was one final disappointment and that was the use of amplification.  The opening chorus was given added resonance.  I found it distracting as it came between the audience and the voices and reduced the impact of those glorious pages at the entrance of Roger and Roksana.  There was no sound designer credited in the program but I regret that it was felt necessary to add it.  It may well have been due to the set design with the voices bouncing off the surfaces.  The visceral thrill of opera comes from the unamplified voice and a work such as this, which revels in the glory of sound, draws even more of its sense of conflict from interplay of the human voice with a large orchestra.

MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER, SAIMIR PIRGU AS SHEPHERD WITH DANCERS (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER
MARIUSZ KWIECIEŃ AS KRÓL ROGER, SAIMIR PIRGU AS SHEPHERD WITH DANCERS (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

Ultimately tonight was marked by a towering performance of the title role by a singer who gave us absolutely everything, even in the most difficult of circumstances.  His was a total performance uniting music, text and physicality to give us an overwhelming experience, one that I can’t get out of my mind.  He was joined by a fine ensemble cast of singers who showed a genuine understanding of the music.  If the production seemed to have questions that had not quite been resolved, it was still a thoughtful and interesting piece of theatre.  Indeed, perhaps in leaving more questions unanswered than answered, Holten is ultimately being true to the work.  At any rate, this show really is worth seeing.

UPDATE 2015/05/06: I was fortunate enough to see the second performance of the run tonight and with the first night out of the way, it felt so much more settled.  Sadly, the pitching in the opening chorus was still not quite there, hopefully it will be at the next performance.  Georgia Jarman’s Roksana was terrific tonight, the voice completely free, the phrasing mellifluous and the vibrato varied intelligently.  Her legato was milky-smooth tonight.  She rode the ensembles effortlessly.  A notable artist undoubtedly.  Saimir Pirgu’s Shepherd was also superb – the voice used with glorious abandon and a heady cocktail of seduction and steel in the tone.  Tonight, Mariusz Kwiecień completely and unequivocally made the role his own.  He was on blazing form.  What struck me about his performance was the way that his voice matched completely with the role.  There was a heroic strength to the tone coupled with the burnished handsomeness of his sound and a touch of metal at the core.  It was an astounding performance.  This was a cast at the very top of its game tonight.  Luckily, I have one more chance to see it before the end of the run.  If you haven’t yet and can get to see it live – don’t hesitate.

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