Royal Flush
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Royal Flush

We love listening to KINGS AND QUEENS sing about their troubles. Here are five who compel special attention, from Queen Dido of Carthage to Boris Godunov.
by Philip Kennicott. Illustrations by Stuart Patience. 

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Boris Godunov
There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great recordings of Boris Godunov, but you can’t go wrong with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role and Karajan in the pit (a Decca recording that uses the Rimsky-Korsakov edition of the score).

Dido and Aeneas
If you want a purely regal voice, then Jessye Norman’s version with Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra beckons. But a better bet is to download that version’s lament, then invest in conductor Emmanuelle Haïm’s wonderfully colorful and far more authentic version on Erato, starring Susan Graham in the title role.

Don Carlos
If you can live with the reduced, four-act version of the opera, the Karajan recording, in Italian, with Nicolai Ghiaurov’s Filippo alongside Carreras and Freni, is best; if you want the larger overview of an opera that never quite found a satisfying final form, then the more complete Abbado recording, in the original French, with Ruggero Raimondi partnering Domingo and Ricciarelli, is recommended.

Roberto Devereux
Edita Gruberova’s performance with the Bavarian State Opera, captured on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, is vocally magnificent and theatrically terrifying and will appeal even to listeners who prefer CDs to video.

Król Roger
Simon Rattle’s recording on Warner Classics, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role, is sumptuous and satisfying and includes as a bonus a recording of Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 4, with Leif Ove Andsnes performing the solo piano part.

OPERA BEGAN IN THE GREAT AGE OF EUROPEAN KINGS, but it has outlasted all of them, save for a few fancy-dress monarchs who faithfully carry out purely symbolic duties. For centuries, opera was integral to royal court life and served as a propaganda exercise for royal power. The relationship between royal power and the message of opera was complicated from the beginning. Opera wasn’t entirely slavish in relation to the king (or queen); it could also chastise and admonish power and render its corruption. 

In the hands of the greatest composers and librettists, however, the king, or the queen, is often more deeply human than any other character onstage. Perhaps it’s because the monarch is aware that he is playing a role, and so has a more self-conscious perspective on the drama. The lovers in the drama are simply compelled to love; the royal figure, who may be jealous, or wounded, or trapped by forces beyond his control, nevertheless sees the complexity of his dilemma, his powerlessness, and thus the power of fate.

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#1  Boris Godunov  

from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov  

There is something mesmerizing about the spectacle of a leader who has a complete meltdown, a vision full of schadenfreude, but also the pure terror of incipient anarchy. These visions continue to haunt and terrify us, whether it’s the thought of Nixon drunk and paranoid in the last days of his presidency or the popular Internet meme derived from the film Downfall, in which Hitler is seen in self-destructive, cataclysmic rage. The Act IV death of Boris Godunov, broken by guilt and harried by madness in Mussorgsky’s eponymous opera, haunts us with the same power.

Mussorgsky began his opera in 1868, just as Verdi was finishing his Don Carlos, and despite their many differences, the two works offer a fascinating contrast in the deployment and representation of power. If Philip’s power permeates the entire score by Verdi, it is Boris’s inability to consolidate his leadership that colors every page of Mussorg-sky’s opera. With Verdi’s libretto, we see the entanglements of power, a thick web that binds the state together; with Mussorgsky’s libretto, based on a play by Pushkin, we sense that same web in dissolution. The most harrowing moments of Boris Godunov are the choral scenes, which hint menacingly at the anarchy just below the surface of every political regime.

And, almost as miraculous as what Verdi accomplished with his tyrant, when Boris falls to pieces, he becomes a deeply moving figure. The presence of the tsarevich, his son, helps, of course, to humanize him. But it is the self-undoing of Boris that horrifies us, a theatrical trope as old as Aeschylus and Sophocles but no less powerful after more than two millennia of repurposing.

# Dido  

from Purcell’s  Dido and Aeneas  

Purcell’s short, compact and deeply moving opera may have been written for performance at a girls’ school in the late seventeenth century—and it may have been written for performance at court. In any case, it idealizes royal power in personal terms, giving us a queen of exceptional dignity, vulnerability and, ultimately, pathos. It is also the greatest English opera written before Britten’s Peter Grimes.

“When monarchs unite, how happy their state,” reads Nahum Tate’s libretto, but it is a bitter and ironic premonition of a fate that anyone familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid would have known before a single note of the score was sounded. What matters is not the plot, or the tragic ending, but the solitary figure of Queen Dido. The opera frames her, focuses on her, dissects her and ultimately eulogizes her. The power of her two central arias, the Act I “Ah! Belinda” and the Act III lament, lies in their insistence on abnegation, self-denial and control in the face of first love, then death. The opera begins with Dido “press’d with torment not to be confessed.” And it ends with words that canonize her royal power: “Remember me! Remember me! But ah! forget my fate.”

This isn’t just about distinguishing the memory of a person from her unhappy ending. It’s about reclaiming the dignity of the person from the larger sense of royal power, which has played an inexorable role in determining that fate. It is also, like the Act I aria, a vocal marvel built over the repeating form of a ground bass. Purcell used this form with as much expressive freedom as Bach used the canon and fugue. But the lament is perhaps his greatest achievement with the form, because it enacts aurally the same thing that Dido demands of us verbally—to distinguish the human Dido from the legendary and royal one. The ground bass is fate, and her fate is bound up with being a queen; and above this, thrillingly, a human being transcends that destiny.

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# King Philip II  

from Verdi’s Don Carlos  

Given its dramatic focus, the opera should be called King Philip, not Don Carlos, but Verdi deferred to Schiller, author of the play on which the composer’s greatest depiction of royalty is based. From the beginning of his engagement with the subject, Verdi was intent on maintaining the complexity of Philip and his complicated relationship with the web of characters who are pulling his family, and his kingdom, in myriad directions. Yet we also know, from an offhand remark Verdi made while visiting Spain, that he considered Philip “savage.” The character that ultimately emerged from this tension is opera’s most complex and unforgettable king.

He would be an indelible character even without his Act IV aria, “Ella giammai m’amò” (in French, “Elle ne m’aime pas”), Verdi’s magisterial showpiece for the bass voice. Philip’s “savage” power permeates the entire opera, from the war-ravaged opening of the Fontainebleau scene, where we see the impact of his ruthlessness on the peasants of France, to the peremptory banishment of his wife’s favorite retainer and his mercurial and explosive relationship to Carlos’s friend, the Marquis of Posa (the unhappy and lonely exponent of political idealism in a realm of brutal realpolitik).

But if Philip’s authority is everywhere present, especially in the brooding orchestration that colors even the opera’s sunniest scenes, so are his weakness and limitation equally manifest. Schiller and Verdi’s librettists, Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, took the usual egregious liberties with history, but the opera remains true to history in the sense that it captures the truth of what it meant to be a king in the age of Philip. The monarch had enormous and even “savage” power, but he maintained it through strategy, alliance and deference to competing authorities, especially the Church. Verdi was no friend of the Catholic Church, so perhaps some of Philip’s savage nature is transmitted onto his clerical rivals, including the Grand Inquisitor.

So Philip is a miraculous accomplishment in characterization, human without being humane, sympathetic without being likable. We can look on him as we often look on the artistic and architectural residue of ancient tyrannies—with admiration and horror.

# Elizabeth I  

from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux  

There are more than three queens in the vast oeuvre of Donizetti, but the “Three Queens” of the Tudor period most fully capture the imagination. Of these, Elisabetta, from Roberto Devereux, offers the most complex and compelling image of royal power. Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda offer the spectacle of women in conflict with each other. But in Roberto Devereux, we also see a queen managing her realm. One can’t expect artists of the first half of the nineteenth century to offer a fully sympathetic treatment of a powerful woman, and like so many heroines of the bel canto era, the implication of hysterical madness is always there. But the Elizabeth who loves young Essex is richer and more complicated than a woman merely in love.

Though to a lesser degree than Verdi, Donizetti and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano manage to show us regal power that is always contingent on alliance, balancing and managing the royal image. In Baroque operas, love and jealousy among royals often seems to be merely a family drama; the fact that they are princes or kings or queens isn’t particularly important. But the trials that Elisabetta faces in Donizetti’s opera are very much about the constraints that power places upon her free will.

In the end, it is her impotence that moves us. A ring is waylaid, and a man goes to his death. That plot detail parallels the larger tragedy of Queen Elizabeth—that in the end, no amount of earthly power can ward off aging and death, or compel others to love us.

# King Roger  

from Syzmanowski’s  Król Roger  

It’s taken a long time for this magnificent opera to gain a foothold in the repertory. Given its premiere in 1926, the opera drew little acclaim until well after World War II. Szymanowski’s utterly idiosyncratic musical style, and the opera’s indulgence of mysticism, may have been off-putting. But it has enjoyed a revival in recent years, especially since a recording by Simon Rattle appeared in 1998. Santa Fe Opera produced it to acclaim in 2012.

The opera has virtually no connection to any existing royal figure, including King Roger II of Sicily, who is the putative inspiration for the title character. Nor does it offer an accurate or interesting image of actual royal power. But it does offer a powerful, even utopian fantasy of how power might work if joined to enlightenment. Szymanow-ski, who cowrote the libretto, has borrowed ideas from one of the most horrifying plays of Ancient Greece, Euripides’ Bacchae, and given it a happy ending. An ancient vision of power unable to adapt, unable to humble itself, unable to listen and transcend its limitations, is inverted into a thrilling vision of power attuned to the larger world.

The plot is simple: a beautiful shepherd is brought into a sumptuous regal court and entices many there to follow him on an ecstatic journey; the king at first refuses, then relents, and the sun rises on a new age. Men like Verdi’s Philip eat men like Szymanowski’s King Roger for lunch. But the dream of a spiritual power that transcends and contains earthly power is an ancient one, and Król Roger repurposes that utopian vision for a new age. The final pages, inspired by a familiar analogy of royal to solar power, give new meaning to the idea of majesty. spacer 

Philip Kennicott , chief art critic of The Washington Post, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

*All of the recommended recordings are available on and streaming services such as Spotify. 

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