Szymanowski – Król Roger
Roger – Mariusz Kwiecień
Roksana – Iwona Socha
Shepherd – Pavlo Tolstoy
Edrisi – Vasyl Grokholskyi
Archbishop – Jacek Ozimkowski
Deaconess – Monika Korybalska
Balet, Chór Dziecięcy, Chór i Orkiestra Opera Krakowskiej / Łukasz Borowicz.
Stage director – Michał Znaniecki
Opera Krakowska, Kraków. Sunday, November 15th, 2015.
This was something very special. The leading interpreter of the title role today, singing in his home town with a Polish cast was really an occasion not to be missed and that’s precisely what tonight turned out to be. This was my second visit to the Opera Krakowska, and as I discovered last year, this is a highly intimate theatre with fewer than 800 seats. The orchestra pit is particularly deep which meant that despite the heavy orchestration, the voices didn’t need to push to be heard. Kraków is an atmospheric city of great beauty with fine bars and restaurants. Krakowiaks are extremely friendly and as a place to spend a few days, it really is a wonderful destination.
I saw Michał Znaniecki’s staging of Król Roger in Bilbao in 2012 and then thought it one of the greatest evenings I had ever had in the opera house for sheer impact. He has revisited some aspects of the staging, particularly the last act, and it still packs a significant punch. Indeed, this staging is very much of the now. Znaniecki takes as his starting point the idea of the Shepherd as a false prophet bringing about the end of Roger’s civilization as he knows it, as well as fully bringing out the gay subtext of the piece. The Sicilian Roger II was known as a king who brought together east and west and columns at the back of the stage displayed texts in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Latin. In the final act, these columns were destroyed as if bombed and collapsed on the floor. The chorus in the first act wear long black robes with their eyes covered. Later they gradually leave the austere religion behind not only to discover pleasure but also to be free from the restrictive nature of their religion.
In the first two acts, we see how Roger gradually falls under the Shepherd’s spell – the Shepherd taunting him with crackling sexual tension as Roger abandons himself to his true nature. During Act 2, a dancer dressed as Roksana moves seductively at the back of the stage in a red dress. Later we see the ballet wearing the same dress gradually undressing themselves to reveal themselves as men. Roger frantically running around the stage to cover them back as if by doing so would negate his sexuality. Despite the collapse of his civilization, the ending marks Roger as reborn by leaving his earthly body behind and images from his life projected on the back of the stage. I found Znaniecki’s staging to be infinitely more satisfying than Holten’s recent Royal Opera one. It had much more immediacy, Personenregie was stronger and we genuinely had a sense of real characters interacting with each other.
Musically, getting to hear Szymanowski’s score performed by Polish forces really was a genuine treat. The entire cast brought out the beauty of Iwaszkiewicz’s text and really made the words count so that even as a non-Polish speaker, I felt really involved in the drama. Mariusz Kwiecień’s Roger is by now well known. Tonight he was superlative, finding even more nuances in the character than he did in London. The voice had a velvety warmth in the middle and in the final act rang out with thrilling amplitude and abandonment. His acting, as always with this incomparable singer-actor, was absolutely gripping. He perfectly caught that paradoxical feeling of excited anticipation and dread at the start of Act 2 and the abandoned desolation of the start of Act 3. Vocally and dramatically tonight he gave us a career-defining performance.
I very much enjoyed Iwona Socha’s Susanna in this house last year and I was especially looking forward to hearing her Roksana. The role sounds slightly on the heavy side for her, intonation very occasionally heading slightly south and there was a very slight sense of the longer phrases not being completely sustained. That said, she is a highly notable artist. The voice has a wonderful fullness and roundness with double cream and a hint of duskiness that really is beguiling. She soared eloquently in her song and was a highly engaging stage presence. Pavlo Tolstoy is a new name to me and he was a superb Shepherd. It’s an extremely difficult role which sits awkwardly in the passaggio but Tolstoy really answered all of the challenges of the role fully. The voice has an impressive ease on high and is a good size. He sang with great lyricism yet the voice has an impressive steely core that meant that it carried well.
The remaining supporting roles were well taken by members of the Kraków opera’s ensemble. This is an opera where the chorus takes a leading role, especially in the opening as they travel from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo in the space of minutes. In a house of this size, it was absolutely overwhelming. It was so wonderful for once to hear that opening chorus in tune from the adults with fine depth and unanimity of tone and glorious amplitude. They nailed the tricky harmonies with ease and also displayed splendid abandonment in the bacchanale. Łukasz Borowicz’s conducting was also much more satisfying than the conducting we had in London. He paced the piece as an organic whole so that the closing pages felt integrated as part of a total, overwhelming experience. He brought out the languidness of Szymanowski’s writing yet also pointed the rhythms so that the piece had an inexorable momentum. Two moments stand out in particular as representative of the excellence of Borowicz’s conducting – during the Shepherd’s first lyrical intervention in Act 1, Borowicz really brought out the hazy string writing with great lyricism, perfectly matching the vocal line. Then at the start of Act 2, Borowicz brought out the rhythmic propulsion under the surface which exemplified how he combined languor with the unending force of the drama. It goes without saying that the musicians of the Kraków opera played like heroes.
This promised to be an outstanding evening and was so much more than that. We had an intelligent and living staging combined with conducting that brought out all the facets of Szymanowski’s glorious score. Combined with some thrilling performances and an assumption of the title role that one would be hard-pressed to find better sung and acted, this was an overwhelming evening. One regret, that I was only able to see it once.