Covent Garden's Glorious Król Roger
Hands down Royal Opera's HD webcast of Król Roger was the easily most fascinating and beautiful HD of any performance I've watched this season.
Kasper Holten's production (along with his lighting, set designer and costumers) laid to rest any notion that Syzmanowski's work is "more oratorio than opera." Here was a compelling drama drawing one into this incredible score and into the head (literally and figuratively) of its protagonist. Within the "stage" area of an ancient ampitheatre, designer Steffen Aarfing created an enormous, three-story, head wherein the opera's first two acts (mostly) occur. Subtlety here was both unnecessary and unwelcome to the symbolism, though one didn't feel as though being banged over the head with obviousness.
Georgia Jarman's strong good looks, her blonde locks pinned under a Louise Brooks bob, created a stunning Roxana, compelling in action and gorgeous vocalizing (indeed, much of Roxana's music in the second act is a wordless vocalise).
Kim Begley's voice has a bit more of a spread to it these days, but his Edrisi was a powerful force in the staging, both as participant and commentator.
The casting and direction of Saimir Pirgu as The Shepherd was a stroke of genius and one of the strongest reasons for the success of this production. Almost glowing in his orange coat/robe and white trousers, his very presence was welcoming though one could easily see why Roger would be threatened and wary. The sometimes high flying role presented little in the way of problems for Pirgu who sailed through the score with ease earning a hearty applause at his curtain.
The dancers - a troupe of mud smeared, men in tighty-whitey's at first bothered me (just a bit) but fit into the action bringing a hypnotic quality to eh proceedings that was as unavoidable as Roger's journey.
As Roger, Mariusz Kwiecien, if not in his absolute greatest voice (he was ill during some of the run) nonetheless gave a performance of such searing intensity, and beauty putting before us a frightened, tormented ruler who held out his resistance until the end. only reluctantly - almost entirely against his will, but unable to do otherwise, became accepting of the message of The Shepherd (who is revealed to be a power-hungry monster). In Act two he sings, "The King has become a pilgrim." Later, "The King has become a beggar."
Antonio Pappano - easily the greatest cheerleader for Szymanowski's opera - leads the Royal Opera forces (including a marvelous schoolboy choir) in a powerful performance, likely as strong a reading as one is going to encounter (and making me regret not being in London, or in Boston for what was apparently another great performance from the BSO). During the intermission, he gave an illuminating discussion from the piano analyzing and explaining the score that should also not be missed.
The final scene, played out before the ampitheatre, the head now gone, (more symbolism) and smoldering fires, flames shooting in the dark, as Roger (no pun intended) "see's the light," was pure heart-in-your-throat theatre. Here, Kwiecien's Roger, beaten (literally and figuratively) rises, for the king's last line "And, from the lonely depths of my power, I pluck my pure heart to offer to the sun in sacrifice," hanging onto that final, powerful note longer than the orchestra, as blinding light explodes across the stage. The effect, the singing and general music-making causing the audience to erupt into cheers, shouts and applause while the music was still hanging in the air. When the curtain rose on Kwiecien alone, it was one of those moments one sensed that neither he, nor the audience will ever forget. I certainly won't.
If you did not catch this, I recommend you remedy that problem immediately by watching the performance while its still available (for free) on youtube in superb quality.