THE Cathedral, the Palatine Chapel that abuts the Royal Palace,
the exquisitely decorated Abbey of Monreale - these are living
evidence that Palermo in Sicily in the 12th century was one of most
richly endowed capitals of Europe.
It is there, amid this splendour, that the Polish composer Karol
Szymanowski and his cousin and librettist Jarosjław Iwaszkiewicz
set their masterpiece Król Roger (King Roger), an
opera that evokes the magnificence of this civilisation where the
paths of Crusaders crossed, while Roman, Norman, Byzantine, and
Muslim flourished, freely intermingling under a firm but
Sketched and composed in 1918-24, King Roger was
brought, at last, to the Royal Opera House this month, in a
production by Kaspar Holten, its current Director of Opera, that
captured its tensions and desolation powerfully.
Gone were the gold mosaics and regal splendour; they were
replaced by a sparer vision by the designer Steffen Aarfing,
Holten's fellow Dane. His modernist interpretation made almost as
massive an impact: a huge, skull-like bald head, initially bathed
in gold and orange-red, which echoed rather ominously the look of
the Byzantine Pantocrator (God as all-creator), and which as Act 2
approaches was swung round to reveal a complex of stairways,
patterns, and levels that suggested the inner workings of the
But whose mind? The central figure in the opera is one of
medieval Europe's great enlightened Christian monarchs, Roger II of
Sicily. In the first Act, resplendent with Byzantine chant sung by
a chorus trained to perfection by Renato Balsadonna, we see him at
mass in Palermo Cathedral, confident and irresistible, upholding
the traditions of the Church and seeking its endorsement.
Into the heart of the service breaks the voice of the young
Shepherd (the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu), who brazenly challenges
the community to abandon its creed and embrace a new, liberated
religion. His effect is disastrous: the initially hostile populace
is prised away from its traditional dogma, while Queen Roxana (the
American soprano Georgia Jarman) is attracted to the new creed, and
the King is left floundering between suppressing this renegade
cult, or legitimising it and becoming an avid follower.
Sinuous unclad figures writhe around the beleaguered monarch,
underlining parallels with Euripides' late Greek play The
Bacchae, on which King Roger is partially founded,
where wild oriental dancers invade Thebes and the young King begins
to find not just his rule but his sexuality questioned.
Though Roger in history was a strong king, in this fantasy we
find him a bit of a wet, unable to consummate his marriage, and
strangely drawn to this beckoning outsider. His ambiguous position
causes him to put his realm at risk.
There were drawbacks. I didn't find many of the moves helped
especially: Roger (Mariusz Kwiecień) was never established or
endowed with enough power or stature, so that neither his
near-demise nor his final hymn to the sun (beautifully sung)
achieved the impact one looked for. Some re- fined moments verged
on the shambolic. Importantly, Roger's minister Edrisi (the
splendid tenor Kim Begley) should be close to the King, present,
advising and warning, as in a concert performance; all too often
here he was physically removed.
The performer who was most skilfully, lithely moved was the
enraptured Roxana, a touching figure whose plaintive,
Arab-influenced cantilena or vocalise was gorgeously and meltingly
At the opera's end, the original plan was that Roger should
yield to his temptations and follow his wife in paying homage to
this alien cult. In Nietzschean terms, he would be embracing his
Dionysiac side, and making peace with his subterranean
But Szymanowski chose to amend the final Act, so that instead,
after a night of mayhem, Roger turns, isolated and lonely, to
welcome the sunrise, thus opening himself to the benign,
enlightened influence of Apollo. The wild shenanigans have made him
the wiser, but have not claimed him.
Besides the baritone Kwiecień, who received a massive ovation as
the King, the biggest triumph of all was the Orchestra of the Royal
Opera House, who - whether in massive build-ups (as in the
cathedral), wildly cavorting scherzo (the Shepherd's followers'
orgiastic dance), or the subtlest of individual touches - yearning
solo violin, harps, celesta, expressive woodwind, and some vital
brass, sometimes muted - produced a wonderful array of sounds under
the direction of Sir Antonio Pappano.
A full performance can be viewed on the Royal Opera House website,
YouTube, and the new Opera Europa Digital Platform, www.theoperaplatform.eu