Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is a rare bird: performed infrequently compared to its classical neighbours, rather brief, and lacking in scandals and a tragic death. Despite its comparatively understated nature, it is nonetheless explosive and refreshingly different when it is staged and performed, and Opera Australia’s new production at the Arts Centre Melbourne is no exception.
A shepherd (Arthur Espiritu) has been causing disturbances amongst King Roger’s (Michael Honeyman) subjects, singing of his god of love and joy. He is a raucous Dionysian presence, who is feared and mistrusted by the Orthodox church. King Roger watches as his wife (Lorina Gore) and subjects are slowly put under the Shepherd’s intoxicating spell, and he is torn between the ways of the church and the sensual, liberal preaching of the Shepherd.
During it’s creation, Szymanowski never referred to King Roger as an opera, but more as a mysterium, which can be noticed in the unique music and story. King Roger really sets itself apart and provides something fresh amongst Opera Australia’s usual repertoire.
The production is set in the early 20th century, with the original opera set in 12th century Sicily, but it is the kind of universal conflict that can be told in any era, notably also in the Greek playwright Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, by which Szymanowski was strongly influenced during the composition of the opera.
One likely will not have heard the music from King Roger’s before, despite it frequently being called Szymanowski’s masterpiece. It is written in Polish and difficult to perform, and thus not often done so outside of Poland. Yet is it stunningly beautiful, and develops and builds from a haunting Orthodox hymn inspired opening, to its cathartic end.
A real standout is the staging and set design, at the centre of which is the giant head of King Roger, which is beautifully lit in Act I and transforms in Act II. It is no easy feat to depict internal struggle on an Opera stage, but director Kasper Holten is to be commended for his interpretation. The head is an almost intrusive centrepiece in the first act that towers over the actual King Roger, reflecting his supposed power and dominance, which is stripped away by the Shepherd in the second act, as the action literally takes place inside his head.
The choreography is beautiful, especially the spectacularly eerie dance troupe, and the lead performers shine with both their singing and their acting.
Because King Roger is more the quiet, brooding cousin of the opera scene, it is underperformed, and perhaps underappreciated. Its nuanced story is easier understood against the backdrop of the composer’s own time and conflicts, of war and revolution in Europe, but is is very rewarding, and not easy to forget.