A giant head formed the set for the Royal Opera House's Król Roger. Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
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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. 

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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist