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DVD Button Jarman, Zwierko; Kwiecien, Pirgu, Begley, Ewing; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Pappano. Production: Holten. Opus Arte OA 1161D, 88 mins., subtitled

Król Show

ROH presents an insightful and masterful production of Szymanowski’s underrated masterpiece.

Recordings Roger hdl 316
Not-so-jolly-Roger: Kwiecien and Jarman at ROH
© Bill Cooper
Recordings King Roger lg 316
Critics Choice Button 1015 

KING ROGER, Karol Szymanowski’s underrated twentieth-century masterpiece, was inspired by Euripides’ Bacchae: a charismatic Shepherd appears in a Christian kingdom, preaching the pagan religion of Dionysian ecstasy, thus posing catastrophic threats to the King’s ordered realm. The entire population is seduced, including, cruelest of all, the King’s wife, Roxana. In this DVD recording of the May 2015 Royal Opera House production, director Kasper Holten makes it clear that the opera’s central conflict is primarily a psychological one—the inner struggle of King Roger’s psyche between temptation and duty. Accordingly, Steffen Aarfing’s set places a giant bald human head centerstage, its eyes meditatively closed. Among the external intrigues, the relationship between Roger and Roxana in this production is particularly fascinating. Roxana (the lustrous soprano Georgia Jarman) is certainly captivated by the Shepherd, but she is enticed by his message of sensual abandon, not by the Shepherd himself. In this thought-provoking conception, Aarfing’s staging and Jarman’s acting make it clear that what Roxana really wants is not to run off with the handsome stranger but to rekindle her erotic relationship with her distant husband. 

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, considerably experienced in the demanding role of Roger, has a kingly, dominating timbre, and he magnificently inflates Roger’s internal conflicts to an epic scale. He traverses a broad spectrum of powerful emotions, and his desperate, thunderous cries of “Roxana” in Act III reverberate. Jarman sings with radiant allure, caressing the intervals of Roxana’s chromatically sinuous vocalises, some of the most memorable music in the opera. She displays a convincing physicalization of Roxana’s sexual reawakening as well.

Saimir Pirgu, a bright, blazing Albanian tenor with an impeccable upper range, certainly has enough vocal charisma to make the whole kingdom pay attention to his Shepherd. In terms of dramatic firepower, he begins gradually but emerges as a full-blown theatrical force in his Act II confrontation with Kwiecien’s Roger. Kim Begley provides a weighty yet expressive tenor and full dramatic involvement as Edrisi, the King’s advisor.

The undisputed star of the show, however, is Szymanowski’s opulent, seething score. The well-traveled composer reveals various powerful influences—the exotic, lush chromaticism of The Firebird, the ecstatic sumptuousness of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and the libidinous orchestral furor of Salome. The alluring Act II bacchanal ends in an impressively climactic frenzy of orchestra, voices, dancing, lighting and projection; it looks and sounds like the disintegration of a political and cultural order, complete with a book-burning and Daphnis et Chloé-esque choral swoonings over the swirling orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the inspiring leadership of Antonio Pappano, provides an aural wallop. This is an insightful, artistically masterful production of a gripping, gorgeous opera.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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