A shining light in a drab year

KING ROGER

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Friday May 19

 

                                                Michael Honeyman

 

Szymanowski’s opera presents a few problems to some of us but not for the usual reasons. The work should be easy to imbibe, particularly as it comprises three pretty brief acts which could be run together without any difficulty, except for trying the main character’s stamina.  And this presentation from director Kasper Holten, a co-production with Covent Garden and Dallas, cuts out the libretto’s extraneous exotica to focus on the three main characters with exacting intensity, just as the composer and his co-librettist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz intended.  But the opera comes with inbuilt baggage that is hard to ignore; well it is for me.  Still, this night’s work came across with such drive and purpose that you easily countenanced the question-marks for the duration.

This version continued the pattern of updates in the national company’s Melbourne season: Carmen in mid-20th century Cuba, Cav/Pag in the same 1980s Calabrian village, King Roger in an abstract environment of the 1920s, this last making the most significant break with the original.   Leaving this chronology element to one side, the finest achievement in the opening night of the Szymanowski opera lay in the musical realization which came close to ideal, conductor Andrea Molino displaying admirable command of a score that juxtaposes garrulity with terseness, euphony and dissonance, seductiveness and brutality.  He was rewarded with an outstanding response from Orchestra Victoria whose playing remained assured from the opening tam-tam strokes to the abrupt final C Major chord.

The action begins with Christian prayers, led by Gennadi Dubinsky as the Archbishop and Dominica Matthews singing his female counterweight, the Deaconess.  As demonstrated by her Mamma Lucia of nine days before, Matthews has a riveting force to her mezzo, made even more confronting in this character who is, from start to finish, out for blood. Dubinsky held his own throughout his 24 lines, the later ones against an increasingly powerful choral backdrop as he stepped up his appeals to Roger for retribution on the free spirit distracting his flock.  Not as forceful as Matthews, Dubinsky impressed as a more querulous figure, albeit one with a rich Orthodox-resonant bass.

As the royal hero, baritone Michael Honeyman gave one of the more memorable characterizations to come from the company’s recent trips south.  Even in Act 1 where Roger has little to say until near the end, the singer exposed clearly the king’s oscillation between firmness and uncertainty, rigid application of the law and fairness informed by agnosticism.  With the opening to Act 2, we are admitted to the man’s mental and physical trepidation in his Niepokoj bladych gwiazd invocation of the stars and his own helplessness. The following exchange with Arthur Espiritu’s Shepherd, the near-stichomythia from Szymanowski’s encounter with Euripides, gave us a vivid chain of outbursts as the ruler’s arguments and effectiveness turned to meaninglessness, Honeyman becoming more and more engrossed in the interplay of libido and authority, his voice reflecting Roger’s struggles with a fine ability at animating the composer’s increasingly taut vocal line.

But Roger really comes under the microscope when he has lost everything in Act 3 and he is faced with the Shepherd/god’s ultimatum.  In a powerful stretch, Honeyman travelled from the rueful Wokol martwota glazow self-appraisal, through the unsettled vision of his wife Roxana, Tyzes to, Roksano!, past the final encounter with the fateful Shepherd/Dionysus, to that final blazoning salutation, Slonce! Slonce!  He contrived to keep these changes consistent in a kind of personality continuum so that the leaps in mood remained credible, the king’s voice a steady force across the act’s changes from depression, through distress and near-hysteria, to an authoritative triumph.

As Roxana, Lorina Gore showed with singular success how to handle a personality who really doesn’t change.  The queen’s initial defence and pleading for the Shepherd were enunciated with fine definition in a vocally crowded passage, but Gore came into her own with the aria that seems to be the only familiar scrap from the score, Usnijcie krwawe sny Krola Rogera, delivered with sinuous placidity and an effortless floating quality, just right for a segment that is predicting Roxana’s rapid slide into the Shepherd’s hedonistic gang. In Act 3,  Gore made a tellingly persuasive case for Roger to yield to the temptations of the flesh with her Jest w gwiazd usmiechu solo, a moment of driving rhapsody that served as an intriguing mirror for Roger’s own last solo.

Espiritu was the only cast change from previous Sydney performances of the opera.  He has a burnished timbre, making an impression for its calm address right from the self-introductory Moj Bog jest piekny jako ja, hitting just the right tone of aplomb and shameless proselytizing.  Even without the traditional setting’s trappings, the singer convinced you of his capacity for transcendence, although prepared, like the Euripides character at the start, to deal fairly with his human prey.  In Szymanowski’s hands, the Shepherd has a kind of tonal certainty to his commands and dictates that found an excellent vehicle in the Act 2 attempted conversion of the King and the seduction of his court and kingdom.

As with Honeyman, so too Espiritu enjoyed a thrilling Act 3.  At this point, the god’s intent is for a complete surrender from the king and his dealings from Rogerze! Rogerze! Czy slszysz glos moj? onward are meant to enfold the king into his followers’ camp.  At this point, the character is a menacing figure who is reaching out without argument but an appeal to abandon self-regard – self-consciousness, really – and embrace the world-as-pleasure principle.  Quite properly, Espiritu left the Shepherd’s blandishments behind and his voice led into the climactic assault on Roger with penetrating authority.

James Egglestone enjoyed his main points of exposure in Act 1, oddly enough.  Possibly it’s an idiosyncrasy of the score but the adviser’s prominence is evident here in dialogue with the king; later, he takes on a very secondary position, both at the start of Act 2 when he attempts to calm Roger, and later at the ruins where he commands his master to act.  This tenor role was the night’s solitary underplayed participant; admittedly, Edrisi has little enough to sing but revival director Matthew Barclay kept him pretty much out of the way, an incidental presence even when his is the only voice speaking commonsense.

As a swathe of publicity shots in the media have shown, the outstanding feature of Steffen Aarfing’s design is a huge head positioned at centre-stage.  This is full-frontal in Act 1, which opens with Roger kneeling before it and the ‘public’ church scene plays in front of and around it.  The head rotates for Act 2 and its back gives us a scaffold-set in its interior, at the bottom of which lie nine near-nude male dancers who carry out the libretto’s choreographic demands.  In Act 3, the head has been reduced to smouldering ashes – all of which is probably a physicalization of Roger’s situation: masterful and confrontational fascism, then uncertainty and mental stratification above a writhing id, eventually the collapse of pretension and a reversion to basic elements.  That’s fine (if that interpretation is correct or justifiable) and the surrounding semi-circle of spectator cut-outs functions well enough as an action delimiter.

Holten’s direction has several striking elements.  In the opening pages, lights play over the dominating head, suggesting the mutability of Roger’s psychological make-up.  The chorus is pretty much just that, their participation in the action limited, especially as the depiction of their surrender to Dionysus in the libretto’s general dances is taken over by the nine professionals.  Szymanowski uses the chorus as backdrop at several points  –  like Roxana’s Act 2 aria, and before the crisis in the last act  –  but their dynamic contribution on this occasion was often muted, even for an off-stage body.   Against this, you have to put the marvellous burst of power that stormed out in the hymn Boze poblogoslaw Panie praodwieczny.  The director also treated with restraint the homosexual subtext that everything associated with the composer appears to summon up these days, King Roger in particular where the Dionysian/Apollonian divide is simplified to a juxtaposition of gay and straight; the use of only male dancers filled that particular bill well enough by allowing for the obvious without smashing us in the face with it.

The composer and his cousin made fairly selective use of The Bacchae as source material.  The Shepherd parallel with Euripides’ herdsman works well enough, although the opera’s superhuman is not as malicious as the play’s character with his appalling boast: I lead this young man to a mighty contest and the conqueror shall be I and Dionysus.  The king is not dismembered in a maenad frenzy, although we get a taste of that madness; rather, he comes to his own victory and repels the invitation to follow the herd; in which sense – bereft of kingdom and standing – he becomes his own man, unlike the grieving and doomed elder generations that survive Pentheus.

In fact, the Euripidean framework and references can take you only so far – which is reassuring, especially for the religiously blameless Sicilian empire-builder that the opera creators settled on as their hero.   Unlike the Theban king, Roger is persuadable in the cause of fairness; he listens to the pleading of Roxana and Edrisi in the first two acts, and he is enough of a poet and insecure like all of us to listen to the Shepherd’s creed. Although his initial reaction is towards the orthodox, the king rescinds his own order for execution, so this latter-day god gives him a second chance and doesn’t send him mad for challenging a divinity.

In fact, the ‘mystery’, as Szymanowski called it, is best explained in Edrisi’s last lines: Przesniony sen! Stargany lancuch zlud!   The dream that threatened Roger – of abnegating the soul and giving in to pleasure alone – is indeed over, and the chain of illusions promulgated by Dionysus has been broken up.  When the malleable hordes have left, including your own beloved, and are following an easy calling that makes no demands on the intellect, you are lucky to be left standing, alone but upright.  It makes for a powerful affirmation of self-hood, regardless of your sexuality, and it caps this extraordinary drama with intelligence and warmth, both qualities that are paramount in this presentation – one of the finest in the company’s chronicles.

The production will be presented again at 7:30 pm on Tuesday May 23 and on Thursday May 25, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 27.   If I had the money, I’d attend all three of them.