53rd Wratislavia Cantans Festival Wrocław Poland Review: Król Roger

Mariusz Kwiecień Gives a Transcendent Interpretation of Tormented Title Role

By Jonathan Sutherland

For many opera lovers appalled by the excesses of regie theater, concert performances are an appealing alternative. Singers standing in sackcloth and rags are infinitely preferable to Hans Neuenfels’ whisker-twitching “Lohengrin” rats or Claus Guth rocketing Rodolfo into outer-space in a South Park Kenny space suit. The problem is that as Richard Strauss and Clemens Krauss wittily explained in “Capriccio,” opera has three integral parts – music, words, and staging and to eliminate one of the components is to be left with a three-legged Grane. The situation becomes more complicated with a less-performed work such as Karol Szymanowski’s masterpiece “Król Roger,” which opened the 53rd Andrzej Markowski Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław Poland.

This is a stupendous opera full of mystery and magic but Szymanowski was as pernickety as Wagner when it came to the precise execution of his scenographic and directional instructions. Movement and stage descriptions litter the score, and the autograph even has a sketch in Szymanowski’s own hand of the Byzantine Capella Palatina in Palermo which the composer knew from frequent visits. Citing “a gigantic mosaic icon of Christ with a long thin face” and “thousands of candles glow in the candelabras,” Szymanowski paints a picture in indelible alpha pixel resolution. Obviously a bare, albeit magnificent concert hall with protagonists in dapper evening dress requires significant leaps of imagination on the part of the audience to transform an intemerate lower-Silesian auditorium in 2018 into quasi-orgiastic 12th century Sicily.

An Ahistorical Account

Szymanowski wrote the libretto in collaboration with fellow philhellene Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and apart from the obvious Nietzschean theme of Apollian versus Dionysian inner conflict, the text is as rich in poetry as the score is dense in variegated sonorities.  Despite being called “King Roger,” Szymanowski categorically rejected any interest in historical verisimilitude. He said “the entire material is a figment of my imagination…the whole boring and pedantic historicism should be discarded. Everything should be treated in an absolutely fantastical setting”.  This analysis was echoed by Iwaskiewicz who wrote that the opera has “less to do with the historical figure of King Roger II and more with Szymanowski’s own emotional inner struggles,” which had already become evident in his unpublished homoerotic novel “Efebos.”  According to the noted Norman historian John Julius Norwich, the real Roger de Hauteville (1095-1154) was not only a multilingual cosmopolite and canny politician but an exceedingly generous patron of the arts and sciences. He was four times married, a congenital fornicator and sire of innumerable bambini. There was no wife called “Roxana,” no repressed gay urgings, no Nietzschean neuroses, and certainly no Dionysian epiphany on the road to Damascus, let alone the strada to Sciacca.

The score seethes with a shimmering, opulent eroticism, exotic melodic lines and tortured tonalities as if a chimerical kaleidoscope of Scriabin, Schreker, Wagner, Berg, Debussy and Strauss and like the latter’s similarly super-sexual “Salome,” “Król Roger” leaps, or more accurately, slithers straight into the drama without an overture.

Solid Casting

Religious stereotypes don’t figure so favorably with Szymanowski. The distinctly archaic ecclesiastical musical notation at the outset suggests that institutional religion was on shakier ground than Mount Etna. That said, the short roles of the Archbishop (Remigiusz Łukomski) and Deaconess (Agnieszka Rehlis) were commendably sung. Rehlis, in particular, has a rich plumy timbre and exuded a pugnacious Delores Umbridge persona. The imprecation to “Defend our holy Church” was more an imperious command than pious request. Łukomski’s plainchant psalmodic singing of the opening old Testament references had sepulchral solemnity.

King Roger II’s loyal muse Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti (sensibly shortened to “Edrisi” in the opera) certainly existed and was one of the foremost poets, writers, and scholars of medieval times. If nothing else, in his “Book of Roger” Edrisi gives the first account of spaghetti making. There was no Gordon Ramsay vulgarity in Szymanowski’s vocal characterization of the sagacious counselor, and Krystian Adam Krzeszowiak was musically assured and dramatically convincing. The florid melodies with which Edrisi describes the Shepherd were lyrically persuasive and the dialogue with Roger which opens Act two sung with style and conviction. There was poetic phrasing towards the conclusion of the opera when the steadfast confidant wistfully observes that “the dream is over.”

Two Unique Interpretations

Perhaps due to Szymanowski’s’s ambivalence towards women, the character of Roksana is somewhat difficult to define and Joanna Zawartko was not exactly the acme of dramatic clarity. As the first to succumb to the Shepherd’s seductive charms and scamper off to a kind of 12th century Satyricon inspired Woodstock, there was not much protest from this libidinous lady. Interestingly, Roksana was written for Szymanowski’s sister Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska who must have been no slouch as a lyric soprano. Zawartko had some ravishing floaty A naturals in the pianissimo dolcissimo passages but the overall impression was more competence than charisma or adept vocalization before virile vibrancy. There were some solid top B flats where the besotted regina is raving about the shepherds smile, eyes, lips, mouth and whatever else was visible. The melissmatic “Ah’s” leading to the lyrical strophic aria in Act two were sung without vibrato and paid much better attention to the dynamic markings. There were some finely floated top G sharps and Rusalka-ish B flats executed with commendable breath control.  The aria is remarkably similar to an earlier Szymanowski vocal composition “Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess” but its inherent exoticism works much better in the operatic context. The hallucinating semi-hysterical repeat of the melissmatic passage during the orgiastic bacchanale was again accurate but hardly orgasmic.

As facilitator of the collapse of Roger’s world, the Christ/Eros/Dionysus figure of the Shepherd was sung by Arnold Rutkowski. The young Polish tenor may not have had “curly copper hair” and opted for spiffy white tie and tails rather than “a shabby goatskin,” but vocally has a strong upper register more Otello than Cassio in color. Musically the modal scales, trochaic meter and descending melodic lines were competently sung but hardly beguiling.  For example, the mid-voice tranquillissimo description of his God “as a good shepherd ” was technically accurate but lacked tenuity. The G sharp fermata on “pęk” (bunch) is marked pianissimo but was more mezzoforte. Similarly, the A natural fermata on “pamiętaj (“remember”)” and F-sharp on “słuchajcie (listen)” were very far from pianissimo. On the other hand, the fortissimo Florestan-esque top A naturals on “moy Bog (“My God”)” and “wieża (tower)” were impressively clarion.  Szymanowski’s equivalent of Lohengrin’s “In Fernem Land” had evenness of tone but again, the F natural fermata on “gwiazd (“stars”)” is marked pianissimo, not forte. A defiant A natural fermata on “Bog (“God”)” was much more consistent with the dynamic indications.

Top Laurels

Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini opined that Mariusz Kwiecień “owns the role” of King Roger, presumably with or without his shirt on. Regrettably, the enormously gifted Polish lyric baritone was noticeably unwell but managed to give a highly intelligent and deeply nuanced performance. Kwiecień, on a bad day, is better than most other interpreters at their best. From his first interrogatory “Who are you?” there was regal authority aplenty and his exasperated shout to his wife to shut up (“Roksana Zamilcz!”)  and stop raving about the physical beauty of the shepherd had ominous potency. When outmaneuvered by the Shepherd’s charms and left alone with loyal Edrisi, Kwiecień’s desperate cry for his wife was gut-wrenching, but the repeated “Roksana” in the final act even more moving.  Due to indisposition, Kwiecień ’s lower tessitura was somewhat attenuated and upper register not as refulgent as usual. For example, the high F natural on “wąż” (“snake”) at the end of the Act two trio and top F sharp on “związ” (tie) lacked optimal projection. Similarly, the orgasmic fortissimo F natural fermate on “słońce (“sun”)” and “świat (world)” may not have had Kwiecień ’s customary booming baritone oomph behind it, but there was still enough ballsy Dionysian virility to persuade any prevaricating prude to come over to the fun side.

The Oscar for “Best Choral Singing in a Sicilian opera by Szymanowski” went to the NFM Choir, the Polish National Youth Choir and the NFM Boys’ Choir. Respective directors Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny and Małgorzata Podzielny elicited extraordinary vocalism from these combined ensembles and the attention to phrasing and dynamic markings was worthy of King’s College Cambridge. Due in no small part to the exceptional acoustics of the NFM hall, the first hushed pianissimo B minor chords and medieval organum parallel open fifths on “Hagios Kyrios Theos Sabaoth!” were mesmerizing. The entry of the boy’s chorus with the thematically important “on a golden throne above the clouds,” was mystically ethereal and the venom with which the crowd brayed for the Shepherd to be burned or stoned seriously scary.

Top laurels, however, go to seasoned Szymanowski expert and Artistic Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, Jacek Kaspszyk. Having directed this diabolically complex score on over 60 occasions, Kaspszyk’s reading is close to definitive. The agonized chromatic instrumental writing is almost Tristan-esque and the multi-layered orchestral sonority so fuliginous it becomes a tsunami of sound which refuses to abate. Kaspszyk’s interpretation was more broadly paced than Pappano in Covent Garden, and lyrically more poignant than Kazushi Ono in Paris in 2009. The Polish maestro was generally attentive to the soloists, especially in terms of generous fermate, but not prepared to muzzle the sounds of Szymanowski’s enormous orchestral forces, which on occasions swamped some singers’ lower tessitura. There were seductive violin solos from concertmaster Radosław Pujanek in the early lento misterioso passage and the six bar sustained high G natural fading pppp resolution at the end of Act one was nothing short of celestial. The metric irregularities of the ecstatic Dionysian dance with vociferous percussion, squawky oboe, frenetic flute and bubbling bassoon solos was another tour de force and the ersatz Eastern melodies and rhythms articulated with peppy panache. Szymanowski claimed the scoring for the bacchanal was entirely original and “my triumph over the sweet ‘orientalism’ of the Rimsky’s e tutti quanti.

With minor reservations, this was a splendid interpretation of a neglected masterwork. One hopes that next time the impeccably attentive Polish audience will be gratified with more visual excitation as well. Perhaps not exactly “Roger in the Raw” but at least a more potent account of sexual self-discovery which lies at the core of both “Król Roger” and Szymanowski himself.


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