It’s a tricky one, don’t you find? When you’re struggling to maintain your grasp on regal power because the anonymous, writhing naked men dwelling in the depths of your psyche simply won’t stop distracting you. They become particularly lively, and things reach a particularly feverish and catastrophic pitch, when a so-called prophet rides into town promising all sorts of pleasures…
Thus runs, broadly, the theme (it’s not so much a plot) of Szymanowski’s Król Roger, at least in Kasper Holten’s well-judged production at Covent Garden. At last, a new production at Covent Garden that can be considered a fairly comprehensive success. The monumental head, filling the stage, starts out as some sort of totem of established worship, framed within a galleried set. As it turns, it reveals a metaphorical chamber, with enlightenment above (symbolised by piles of books) and the aforementioned baser elements slithering in the depths. This colossal stage-picture allowed the themes of Szymanowski’s opera to be very well elucidated: pulses of movement in the sensual depths accompanied each hint of King Roger’s seamier psychological undercurrents, until things disintegrated completely and broke free from the central cranium. Knowledge, again symbolised by books, was destroyed in a flaming pyre in the third act, giving way to the pursuit of pure pleasure – except for Roger, who sees a possibility of rebuilding a more meaningful life.
The piece called to mind Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, particularly in being a short, powerful vignette rather than an extended story, as well as recalling Straussian themes: what Strauss did for female sexuality in Salome, laying it out in full extremity in the orchestra, here Szymanowski seems to afford the same opportunity for male homoerotic desire. I say merely ‘opportunity’, since this impression is definitely enhanced by the particular production that Holten has put together.
Pappano brought to the score his customary attention to the dramatic details, and the orchestra responded with a glorious array of sonorities, especially noticeable in the insinuating themes that indicated the suppressed desire. As Roger, Mariusz Kwieceń was sonorous and dramatic in his disintegration, and ringing in his vision of a better future. Kim Begley brought authority to Edrisi, and Georgia Jarman was a silver-toned Roxanna, with fantastic stage presence that made the sensual most of her Louise Brooks style. Saimir Pirgu sang strongly as the Shepherd, and had physical command of the seduction scenes, but somehow lacked the last ounce of vocal allure. The ROH Chorus haunted and thundered with equal aplomb.
None of the principals were really sketched in great detail in this short work, with contributes to the ambiguity with which it ended. Indeed, it sort of stopped, rather than really ending – if you missed a line or two it was easy to miss a crux on which the drama turned. Nonetheless, it still retained a disturbing power for all that – this was a great night in the theatre, and certainly one of the most consistently engaging and satisfying that there has been at Covent Garden for a while.