Król Roger’s music is beautiful – but overwhelmed by constant symbolism

The production makes it very clear what we are supposed to think, which sadly detracts from the variety and ambiguity the composer worked into his score. 

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Król Roger
Royal Opera House, London WC2

As soon as the lights come up on the enormous sculpture of a face, you know what you are supposed to think about the Royal Opera House’s take on Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger. This early-20th-century piece by the often-neglected Polish composer is all about inner conflict, and the mesmerising light show that plays across the gigantic features during the overture gives you a visual representation of the competing demands of ego and super-ego.

It’s a subtle and impressive display: the features appear to shift and flicker, a glorious accompaniment to the music. Even before the monarch begins to sing, we have been drawn into his struggle between sensual temptation and religious ­conformity. What with the glittering harmonic brilliance of Szymanowski’s music underscoring this imposing vision, it is several moments before you notice the man kneeling before the great face. He is dwarfed by it – when he stands, his head barely reaches above its lips – and yet this is Król Roger, ruler of a kingdom and the human embodiment of power.

The historical figure who inspired this character, King Roger II of Sicily, ruled in the 12th century, but Kasper Holten’s new production appears to place him nearer the time the work was composed – the 1920s. Double-breasted suits, bobbed hair and cloche hats abound. Yet Roger resists definition. Who is he, this king who bows before the implacable, unknown face?

Szymanowski and his cousin Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who wrote the libretto, revelled in creating and sustaining tension and uncertainty. As well as the historical connection, they drew on Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae as well as the writings of Nietzsche for the heart v head dichotomy at the centre of their drama. Their Roger is a leader under siege, a king struggling to balance the enthusiasm his subjects and his wife feel towards a charismatic new prophet, known as the Shepherd, with the demands of the conservative, orthodox religion of his kingdom. In order better to evoke this, Szymanowski fashions the first act almost as a kind of oratorio, with chorus melodies inspired by the liturgy of the eastern Church underpinning the Shepherd’s alluring, soaring vocal lines.

It is easy to be seduced by this music. Although Szymanowski was a modernist, he blended influences from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and his fellow Pole Chopin in his impressionistic, richly textured style. The details of the composer’s private life are relatively unknown, perhaps unsurprisingly, as he was homosexual at a time when there was no public recognition or understanding of sexuality. Szymanowski did write a novel about Greek love, titled Efebos, but as only a fragment survives one shouldn’t seek many parallels between the composer and his protagonist.

The production makes it very clear at all times what we are supposed to think, which sadly detracts from the dazzling variety and ambiguity the composer worked into his score. This is particularly obvious in the second act, when the vast face spins round to expose Roger’s “inner life”, the rooms where he resides with his wife, Roxana. As Saimir Pirgu’s delicately floated high notes express the Shepherd’s siren call to the king, writhing, near-naked dancers creep up into his sanctum. Books, representing reason, are cast out. The duality and tension are right there in the music, Roxana’s stunningly chromatic, oriental-influenced melodies overlaying the more western harmonies used by her husband. The added symbolism feels heavy-handed.

Originally, Szymanowski and Iwaszkie­wicz envisaged a straightforward ending to the tale: the king is persuaded by the Shepherd and allows his instinctive, primal self to triumph. However, the composer thought better of this part-way through the writing process and produced the third act without the aid of his librettist. The result is a fascinating, ambiguous sequence in which the king goes in search of the Shepherd and his errant wife, but when the prophet departs Roger does not blindly follow him.

Instead, he takes centre-stage and delivers an extraordinary hymn in salute to the sun. It is the one moment in this production when relentless symbolism is allowed to recede, and it is superb. Mariusz Kwiecien stands bare-chested at the edge of the stage, the effort of delivering Roger’s final C major resolution clearly apparent. Yet this melody still contains hints of the Shepherd’s earlier motifs. “The chain of illusions breaks!” rumbles the king’s adviser Edrisi, looking on, though it is far from clear whose illusions have been fractured.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph