Oper Graz 2018-19 Review: Król Roger

Szymanowski’s Magical ‘Mysterium’ Opera Staged For Only The Second Time In Austria

By Jonathan Sutherland

To paraphrase Shakespeare “an opera by any other name would sound as sweet.”

There are multiple nomenclatures for the lyric theatre ranging A-Z from “Azione teatrale” to “Zarzuela.” Not to forget Wagner’s singular appellation of “Parsifal” as a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” or Richard Strauss’ designation of “Capriccio” as a “Konversationsstück für Musik.”

Karol Szymanowski stands unique in that the original description of his magnum opus “Król Roger” was “Mysterium.” Admittedly he later crossed out this esoteric sobriquet in favor of the much more mundane epithet “opera” but clearly the element of mystery was always paramount in the composer’s mind.

Entering the Mysterium

There are also multiple hints that the dramaturgy of “Król Roger” may be just a dream. Confusingly the word “sen” as a noun in Polish can mean both “sleep” and “dream.” According to Krzysztof Biernacki’s doctoral thesis, the word “sen” occurs no less than 19 times in the text. Like Strauss’ “Salome,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” or Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” all the action in “Król Roger” takes place at night, creating a nocturnal surrealism worthy of JMW Turner or misty Monet.

Szymanowski wrote the erudite poetic libretto in collaboration with fellow philhellene Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and the thematic raison d’être strongly reflects Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” concerning man’s eternal conflict between Apollo v. Dionysus (or Reason v. Instinct). Despite being called “King Roger,” Szymanowski categorically rejected any historical verisimilitude with the life of King Roger II of Sicily.  He wrote, “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 Iwaszkiewicz who admitted 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of King Roger II and more with Szymanowski’s own emotional inner struggles” which had already become evident in his unpublished homoerotic novel “Efebos.” The opera is so vague, abstruse and surreal any staging is almost tabula rasa for regisseurs – a potentially perilous purview.

Lacking the Edge

Avoidance of any biographical or historical accuracy is a concept shared by director Holger Müller-Brandes who explained in his program notes that he sees King Roger as a symbol of a modern individual in a background of decaying ideologies and values.  Szymanowski’s disavowal of the historical context clearly contradicts his specific scenographic instructions which proliferate the score. They are as precise as any directions by Wagner or Puccini. For example Szymanowski states the Byzantine Capella Palatina is “half dark, lit only by thousands of candles” and dominated by “a gigantic mosaic icon of Christ with a long thin face.” The Oriental palace courtyard should be festooned with “multicolored arabesque granite columns, carpets and alabaster lamps.” Szymanowski’s vision of how the palace should look was further validated by sketches in the composer’s own hand in the autograph score.

Katrin Lea Tag’s set designs reflected Müller-Brandes’ essentially pedestrian contemporary conceptualization. Instead of the magnificent Palermo cathedral, the most enlightened ruler in 12th century Europe was closer to a local council committee chairman holding court ad hoc and al fresco. The vociferous Christians were not whinging in righteous indignation in the stupendous cathedral but appeared menacingly from a small hillock like Cio Cio San’s hangers-on in “Madama Butterfly.” The only demonstrable religious reference was a large cross carried around by Edrisi as if he was taking part in a low budget Oberammergau procession. One notable stage feature was a gold-lined hole in the ground. The directional concept that kingship is gilded tomb is hardly original.

At least Krzysztof Warlikowski’s scandal-ridden swimming-pool production for the Opéra de Paris offered some titillating semi-nakedness. There was no apparent scene change between the first two Acts but admittedly a striking coup de théâtre when the central stage wedge rose to an enormous height with Roger in tableau vivant form seated on high in the gold-lined niche as the human personification of a Byzantine icon. Szymanowski describes the bucolic Hellenic landscape in Act 3 as “the ruins of an antique theatre” but Tag’s staging was more like a rocky moonscape replete with dirt and wood shavings. The ubiquitous hole was back but as a flinty grave in which Roger could ruminate and repose.

Assisted by Lejla Ganic, Tag was also responsible for the costumes which were as far from sumptuous Byzantine as H&M is to Hermès. Only the sagacious Edrisi was decently garbed and in fact much more resplendent than his sovereign. Roksana could have been an Avon lady with swinger tendencies and the Shepherd’s natty dark suit confusingly blurred into the blue-hued smocks of the censorious Christians. Despite Edrisi’s precise description, there was definitely no shabby goat-skin doublet for this spivvy seducer. At least he was spared Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s Minnie Mouse mask which Eric Cutler had to endure in the Paris production. Roger’s wardrobe was more suitable to a successful insurance salesman in 2019 than a fabulously wealthy Byzantine despot in the 12th century.

Beate Vollack’s choreography of the bacchanal was about as erotic as a Methodist bible-study meeting. Seemingly comatose dancers were lying around before engaging in slow motion movements closer to tai-chi exercises than orgiastic fornication.

Musical Matters

Musically things were much more satisfactory. Wilfried Zelinka’s Archbishop and the Deaconess of Marihana Grabovac were both competently sung although the latter’s imprecation to “Defend our holy Church” was not very zealous. Zelinka’s opening psalmodic Old Testament verses was suitably sepulchral.

King Roger II’s confidant Edrisi certainly existed and was one of the foremost scholars of medieval times. Seasoned Graz comprimario tenor Manuel von Senden brought commendable stage presence and solid vocalization to the role. “The bird of wisdom is speaking through the Queen’s lips” was particularly well delivered.  “O King! You are Lord!” was convincingly compassionate with some refulgent G-sharps. Von Senden showed credible prescience and poetry in his final proclamation that “The dream is over.”

Perhaps due to Szymanowski’s inherent disinterest in women, the character of Roksana is neither appealing nor profound. Aurelia Florian did little to develop the role and for most of the time seemed like a bored socialite looking for a bit of fun with a cute boy. Florian’s Polish diction was so imprecise she could have been singing in her native Romanian. From  “Let him be brought before your presence!” there was an unpleasant fast vibrato which marred the cantilena. There was better articulation of the pianissimo dolcisssimo A-natural on “stars shine” but “Why is it that in your eyes, O Shepherd” to a top B-flat was notably shrill with an obtrusive vibrato.

Roksana’s opening ad libitum melissmatic passages in Act two starting with a top A-flat were correctly empyrean with a killer crescendo on the second A-flat octave leap but mordents were muffled and murky.  The lyrical “Kołysanka Roksany” aria was emotionally detached with muddy phrasing but there were moments of capable vocalization with some finely floated top G-sharps and a Rusalka-ish passing top B-natural. Florian’s incoherent repeat of the melissmatic theme during the orgiastic bacchanal was accurate enough but far from orgasmic. Her distant echoing “Roger” roulades in Act three were more satisfactory and a solid B-flat on “moc” and sustained fortissimo A-flat on “Kraj” had hints of Brünnhilde. The dubious explanation that the Shepherd had “melted into the mist” was not especially convincing, presuming of course that Roger could understand anything of Roksana’s desultory diction.

The Shepherd

Apart from Szymanowski’s multiple descriptions of the opera, there is a second title in the partitura of “The Shepherd” which makes the principal protagonist slightly obscure. Müller-Brandes dodges the question by claiming the main subject is actually love. Roger certainly goes through a profound personal epiphany, but despite Szymanowski’s privately acknowledged homosexuality, this is no crypto-gay “Tristan und Kurwenal” meets “La Cage aux Folles.”

The Christ/Eros/Dionysus figure of the Shepherd was sung by young Polish tenor Andrzej Lampert. The handsome singer certainly looked credible as the gentle seducer and his forward placed lyric voice was musically ideal. Similar in timbre to Philip Langridge in Simon Rattle’s 1998 recording, Lampert has an exceptionally  warm honeyed color in the mid-range.

The expressive cantilena in “My God is beautiful like I” was silkily seductive and the modal scales of the Shepherd motiv were cleanly and clearly articulated.  Despite the essentially light tenore di grazie quality of the voice, Lampert has sufficient projection to penetrate the hefty orchestration. There was an excellent E-natural diminuendo fermata on “wędruje” and the G-sharp fermata on “pęk” was pristine. The pianissimo rallentando on “łaska wielka” was elegantly phrased. Lampert’s sustained A-natural on “móy Bóg” after the hubbub of the clamouring Christians could have had more puissance but the same note on the sustained 8 beat “Hasło Roger” was much more clarion.

The Shepherd’s equivalent to Lohengrin’s “In Fernem Land” (“Z uśmiechu południowych gwiazd”) had impressive evenness of tone with a timbre reminiscent of Fritz Wunderlich. Lampert’s à capella summoning of Roger in the last act (“Rogerze! Czy słyszysz głos mój?”) had marvelous clarity of intonation and diction. In Verdian terms Lampert is much more Cassio than Otello, but this is exactly the kind of voice Szymanowski had in mind. His first Shepherd was Adam Dobosz who was a celebrated Belmonte, Lenski and Almaviva.

The King

Substituting for an injured Markus Butter, Kay Stiefermann gave an impressive performance in the title role. For one thing his Polish diction was surprisingly good – no easy task as anyone who has ever tried to pronounce “konstantynopolitańczykówianeczka” will agree. From the outset Stiefermann’s characterization was introverted and cautious, quite different to Mariusz Kwiecień’s swaggering hyper-sexual alpha-male monarch.

The first interrogatory “who are you?” was full of foreboding and his exasperated command to his wife to shut up and stop raving about the beauty of the Shepherd (“Roksana Zamilcz!”)  showed fear of the inevitable consequences. Vocally the upper register F-sharps such as “dość!” “zginie” and F-natural “Milcz!” were solid.

There was real despair in Roger’s cries for his wife in Act three and multiple marcato “Roksanes” with pungent E and D-flats were heartfelt and harrowing. Roger’s closing “Hymn do słońca” scena was movingly sung but needed more vocal virility. The fortissimo F-natural fermate on “Słońcu” and “świat” and final E-natural on “dam” were certainly far from the gut-wrenching helden-baritone blast by Mariusz Kwiecień in Covent Garden. That said, this was a thoughtful, introspective performance of a role which has much more to do with Szymanowski confronting his own demons than any regal regression by Roger de Hauteville.

With minor reservations, choral directors Bernhard Schneider and Andrea Fournier produced some fine singing from the Chor, Extrachor & Singschul’ der Oper Graz. Although the crescendi and diminuendi on the first parallel open fifths on “Hagios” were correct, the resolution to ppp wasn’t. Similarly the boy choir entry on “On a golden throne above the clouds” was far too marcato and not nearly misty ethereal enough. The score states “perdenosi pp” not “potenza mf.”

Consistently Impressive

The conducting of Roland Kluttig and orchestral playing of the Grazer Philharmoniker was consistently  impressive. Kluttig followed broader tempi than Pappano in Covent Garden in 2017 and far greater lyricism than Kazushi Ono in Paris in 2009. The next Chief Conductor of Oper Graz was especially sensitive to the singers and in contrast to Jacek Kaspsyk’s recent performances, the huge orchestral forces seldom overwhelmed the vocalists. Rallentandi and rubati were without exception finely nuanced. Szymanowski’s yearning, variegated chromatic score reflects “Tristan und Isolde,” “Salome,” and “Elektra” in its multi-layered sonority and often overwhelms with an almost unrelenting tsunami of sound.

Kluttig cleverly kept the kinetic instrumentation intense but still luminous.  There were some seductive violin solos such as the lento misterioso passage at the Shepherd’s first appearance with commensurate lush lyricism from other strings and cor anglais.  The six bar sustained high G natural fading into a pppp resolution at the end of Act one was celestial whilst the contrasting molto ansioso ed agitato opening to the second Act had all the suspense of a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack in an Alfred Hitchcock film. The vivace allegramente orchestral passage after the Shepherd’s entrance in Act two was punchy and potent with some fine brass interjections. The metric irregularities of the ecstatic Dionysian dance with primeval percussion, tintinnabulous tambourine, screechy oboe, spitting trumpets, frenetic flute and chuckling bassoon solos was another orchestral tour de force and the ersatz oriental melodies and rhythms were played with peppery panache. The only criticism was that the wistful lento assai opening to Act three is marked ppp but was played far too forte, especially in the winds.

Following the Piazzolla rarity “María de Buenos Aires” last year, Oper Graz Intendantin Nora Schmid continues to programme fascinating and original repertoire in the Styrian capital.  Admittedly “Król Roger” stretches the bounds of operatic esoterica and directional misgivings aside, this marvelous “mysterium” is definitely worth hearing. Six more performances run until May 4th.


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