Sunday, 17 May 2015

The King and the Shepherd (Król Roger/ ROH)

Karol Szymanowski, Król Roger (Antonio Pappano cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)

The Opera Platform seemed to be struggling last night.  It was cutting out, but the ROH Youtube stream worked perfectly. Apparently 45k tuned in to watch the Traviata last week live, and the same again in the following five days. As they get an idea of numbers, hopefully everything will be fixed. I wonder if word got out of free opera like this, and I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers were considerably higher. Król Roger had such good reviews, it is little wonder the system appeared to be buckling under the weight of anticipation.
Król Roger has never been well-known in the UK. I hadn't heard of it, and didn't even contemplate it when looking at the ROH season to book. Somehow I think I processed it as dance. More fool me.
This is a beautiful, awe-inspiring work. The question as to why is puzzling. It has the feeling of an Eastern, sacred work. Mussorgsky, perhaps. Oratorios are popular - Handel's Messiah has a popular currency without any obvious compare - but that doesn't seem to sell this. The plot is rather limited so this choral quality is essential.
Mariusz Kwiecień in Król Roger © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper, 2015

Holten's clever production offers the clarity necessary for such a work unfamiliar to the vast majority of its audience. The large head shown above revolved, oepned, and then was burnt to ashes. Speaking of clarity, yhe audio levels which dogged the launch of the Opera Platform last week were resolved, and subtittles appeared, unbidden, in English. Actually such is the plot, with the unfailing Penguin Opera Guide at my side, it would have been okay. Despite the improved audio, with a domestic setup, there is a limit to how closely singing can be assessed. Clearly Saimir Pirgu's Shepherd and Georgia Jarman's Roxana were superb. It was also hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill with some interesting discussions in the customary 30m Covent Garden interval. Even if not earth shattering, you always learn something, and somehow it gives a sense of occasion to the whole thing. The music was exotic, reminiscent of the Orthodox church, perhaps; more than a whiff of Mussorgsky about it. You could plant it on a map (Ukraine issue notwithstanding).
The loudest applause seemed reserved for the conductor. It seems that Pappano is becoming as revered at Covent Garden as Levine is at the Met. My mother will ask if I saw Tony at the Royal Opera House, as if he were her best friend.

Overall: curiously rare, and not to be missed. Due for a revival soon, I hope.
Catch up here. Non-English subtitles will be added over the coming week.
Full details.

Conductor Antonio Pappano
Król Roger II Mariusz Kwiecień
Shepherd Saimir Pirgu
Roxana Georgia Jarman
Edrisi Kim Begley
Archbishop Alan Ewing
Deaconess Agnes Zwierko
Chorus Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master Peter Manning
Orchestra Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Music Karol Szymanowski
Libretto Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
Director Kasper Holten
Designs Steffen Aarfing
Lighting design Jon Clark
Video design Luke Halls
Choreography Cathy Marston
Dramaturg John Lloyd Davies

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