Szymanowski – Król Roger
Roger – Mariusz Kwiecień
Roksana – Joanna Zawartko
Shepherd – Arnold Rutkowski
Edrisi – Krystian Adam Krzeszowiak
Archbishop – Remigiusz Łukomski
Deaconess – Agnieszka Rehlis
Chór Chłopięcy NFM, Polski Narodowy Chór Młodzieży, Chór NFM, NRM Filharmonia Wrocławska / Jacek Kaspszyk.
Narodowe Forum Muzyki, Wrocław, Poland. Friday, September 7th, 2018.
Tonight’s concert performance of Król Roger marked the opening event of the fifty-third Wratislavia Cantans festival. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘liberation’ and with its focus on liberation from bodily and moral restrictions, as well as its full use of the large forces, Król Roger is an ideal curtain raiser for a festival such as this. Tonight also marked my first visit to the magnificent Narodowe Forum Muzyki. The hall, opened in 2015 with 1800 seats, is a wonderful venue to see a concert in and indeed a venue that the city can be exceptionally proud of. The acoustic is warm and resonant, with a clarity that is staggering, that allowed Szymanowski’s multicolour orchestration to come across with remarkable vividness.
Król Roger is a mysterious work – one that reveals its truth slowly, open to multiple readings. Is it a work about the seduction of hedonism or a man’s acceptance of his own true nature? Is it about one man’s love of a beautiful stranger or a man’s devastation as his wife succumbs to that stranger? Without the trappings of a staging, in concert Król Roger becomes an even more personal experience. One brings to it one’s own interpretation of the text and understanding of what lies beneath the surface. Performed without intermission, we got a ninety-minute arc of a journey deep into a man’s psyche, performed with thrilling immediacy by Mariusz Kwiecień’s Roger. Of course, the disadvantage of the concert setting is that the size of the orchestration can overwhelm the cast, with the singers in front of the band rather than being able to carry over the forces in the pit. Fortunately, Jacek Kaspszyk’s singer-friendly conducting allowed the cast through where necessary. It also meant that the climaxes were physically overwhelming, overtaking this listener in a blaze of sound.
Kwiecień’s Roger is now well known, having performed it in stagings in Bilbao, Paris, Madrid, London and his native Kraków, as well as in concert in Boston. Kwiecień is a stage animal and it was fascinating to watch him create a fully-formed character in this concert setting. In Act 1, he brought out an uptight insecurity in the King, mocking the Shepherd’s mention of his god. In Act 2, the loss of reason as he began to realize and accept his feelings was almost frightening in how he combined the physical immobility with a force to his vocalism that was quite astonishing. There were hints of indisposition – the very bottom of the voice sounded somewhat arid towards the end – but Kwiecień is such an intelligent singer that he used the vulnerability to the service of the character. He transformed the final scene, from what can so often be a struggle to be heard over the band, into a tender liebestod bringing out a sadness for what was and what never could be. Kwiecień always sang the role true to his exceptionally handsome instrument – this might read as self-evident, but there was never a sense that he was pushing the voice further than it could go. His reading of the part was so psychologically complex that it completely transcended the concert setting.
Joanna Zawartko is a new name to me but she is a major talent. The owner of a generous lyric soprano of milky beauty on top, with a resonant and tangy middle, she is undoubtedly a name to watch. She sang her song with beguiling tone, shading the line with delicacy – most impressive. Arnold Rutkowski brought his equally handsome tenor to the role of the Shepherd. It’s a robust sound and his Shepherd was somewhat masculine and butch, perhaps lacking the seductive insinuation that the role ideally needs. It lies extremely high and up there, the voice sat somewhat under the note. Still, it’s most certainly a very attractive instrument. Krystian Adam Krzeszowiak’s Edrissi was sung off the text, his tenor full of character. Agnieszka Rehlis was luxury casting as the Deaconess, her firm, sappy mezzo making an impression despite the brevity of the role. Remigiusz Łukomski’s warm and generous bass was a tower of strength as the Archbishop.
The performance benefitted from the superlative singing of the massed choruses. The opening, emerging from nothingness, was perfectly tuned and led to a glorious burst of sound. The firmness of the tone, not to mention its beauty, was absolutely remarkable, a universe away from the interminable wobble so many opera choruses subject us to. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the work better sung. They had been exceptionally prepared by Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny. The children’s chorus, prepared by Małgorzata Podzielny, was also extremely impressive with immaculate pitching.
The house orchestra played like heroes for Kaspszyk. The range of colour that they exploited was staggering, from gossamer strings, to characterful winds and brass that bathed the auditorium in a golden glow. Kaspszyk phrased the entire opera as a single, endless span with one section leading to another, as well as one act leading to another, with organic flow. His tempi felt somewhat on the measured side – alive to the score’s languid stream but perhaps lacking in the ideal sense of swing for the bacchanale. The quality of the house forces is truly remarkable.
Tonight was a tremendous evening, an opportunity to hear this remarkable piece performed at the very highest level. It was anchored by a psychologically complex interpretation of the title role by one of the greatest singing-actors of today, who truly lived his role in a concert setting, and introduced us to a soprano of serious promise. At the start of the evening, with the usual announcement to turn cellphones off, we were wished an unforgettable evening. Indeed, the way that the massed forces produced that glorious noise in the opening scene will stay with me a very long time. Yet, what was also stay with me is the loneliness that Kwiecień found at the start of Act 3, the voice ideally matching the score’s nocturnal tinta in the orchestra. A remarkable evening in so many ways.
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