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Znaniecki's King Roger on Stage in Spain

A scene from Michał Znaniecki's King Roger, photo: E. Moreno Esquibel / ABAO-OLBE
A scene from Michał Znaniecki's King Roger, photo: E. Moreno Esquibel / ABAO-OLBE

The ABAO-OLBE company in Bilbao premieres director Michał Znaniecki's production of the opera King Roger on the 24th of November. The new Spanish production of composer Karol Szymanowski's masterwork features Mariusz Kwiecień, the renowned Polish baritone, in the title role

King Roger is widely recognised as the most beautiful Polish opera, and international productions in recent years have been successful and provocative. Szymanowski's major opera was enthusiastically received in summer 2012 in the U.S., in the Santa Fe Opera's production, directed by Stephen Wadsworth with Mariusz Kwiecień in the lead. New productions are being planned in Chicago, by Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The director Krzysztof Warlikowski's version with Kwiecień has been staged in Paris and Madrid, and director Mariusz Trelinski's second production traveled to Edinburgh and St. Petersburg, with the Mariinsky Opera conducted by maestro Valery Gergiev.

The new Spanish production of King Roger is co-produced with the Grand Theatre in Poznań and directed by Michał Znaniecki. Znaniecki made his debut as the youngest director to cooperate with La Scala, at age 24. Recognised for his great directing talent, he has worked in opera houses and theatres in Italy, France, Ireland and Poland since 1995. With his new Szymanowski production, Znaniecki returns to Bilbao following his Eugene Onegin last year. He casts Szymanowski's tale of King Roger II of ancient Sicily in contemporary times:

Our King Roger is a universal opera which attempts to pose the question of who we are today. Together with Mariusz Kwiecień we are carefully searching for each word of the piece. King Roger is a symbol of contemporary times and he is neither a mythical king nor a mythological one, but a normal human being who carries the burden of a king's responsibility.

King Roger has been described as a 'philosophical opera' drawing on  Dionysian sensual debauchery and on the Apollonian cult of beauty and light. Szymanowski's sumptuous, distinctive score straddles the borders between opera and music drama, with the composer including elements of oratorio and performance inspired by the Orient. The first act, set during a Palermo Cathedral service, has King Roger, Queen Roxana and the loyal advisor Edrisi learn from church authorities that a new religion threatens the kingdom, and that its founder is a young, beautiful Shepherd. Summoned to the cathedral, the Shepherd is accused of offences against God. The royal couple is impressed by the Shepherd's virile humility and, despite aggression from church elders and the congregation, spare his life and summon him to the royal court.

In the second act, Roger, troubled by Roxana's growing fascination with the Shepherd, is justified when the pair disappear into the night with much of the court. Roger embarks on a long journey to find them. In an ancient temple ruin by the sea the Shepherd reveals his godly form and is praised by the royal couple – who then take radically different directions into the dawn, with the opera's powerful final chord resounding from the orchestra.

In the new production in Bilbao, Mariusz Kwiecień is joined by Iano Tamar as Queen Roxana and Jose Luis Sola as the Shepherd. The orchestra is conducted by Lukasz Borowicz, principal conductor of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, who works at the National Opera in Warsaw and with German orchestras. Of his performance as Roger, Kwiecień calls the King's characteristics 'rather difficult to describe, because the libretto gives numerous possibilities of interpretation. It is certain that King Roger is a person who is lost in contemporary time. It is really difficult to find the right tones and make the music fit his character.'

In an interview with Dorota Szwarcman for Polityka magazine before playing the role with the Santa Fe Opera, Kwiecień said:

I have taken up King Roger as my task for the years to come. An artist needs to have something like a role of his life. I climbed to the top with the role of Don Giovanni, and now I am free to promote my own ideas. I have only peformed the role of Roger on two stages, in Paris and in Madrid, and both of these performances were directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. (...) In three years time, London's Covent Garden will stage the opera especially at my request. I am also in the process of working on a staging of the piece by the Met, and the director Peter Gelb has initially welcomed the idea.

Mariusz Kwiecień (born 1972) discovered the allure of King Roger when he was cast in the Warlikowski production in Paris then reprised the role with the director in Madrid. Since gaining international acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Mozart's Don Giovanni, the singer has been King Roger's most prominent voice and the opera's enthusiastic proponent, urging programme directors across the world to include the Szymanowski opera in their repertoires. When he told the Santa Fe Opera's general director, Charles MacKay what he'd like to sing next for the company, a place was created in the company's schedule, and MacKay has since remarked on Szymanowski's 'rich, exotic score'. Kwiecień calls King Roger 'the best Polish opera ever written' and critics including the New York Times' Anthony Tomassini responded avidly to the Santa Fe production, for which director Stephen Wadsworth used the stained glass windows of the outdoor opera house to create a set of light, before the stark, unnerving final scene.

Karol Szymanowski completed the opera in 1924, after modifying the libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. It received its world premiere two years later, staged by Adolf Popławski at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, with Emil Młynarski conducting. King Roger was then staged in opera houses worldwide, from Duisburg, Germany, in 1928, to Prague in 1932 and Teatro Massimo in Palermo in 1949. The Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music presented a concert version in 1961, and U.S. productions played at the Long Beach Opera in 1988 and at Bard College in 2008, directed by Lech Majewski. The current revival of interest in Szymanowski's works and life includes prominent new productions of King Roger and concerts in Europe, North and South America, and in Asia, thanks in major part to support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw and Polish Cultural Institutes around the world.

The Bilbao premiere of King Roger takes place on the 24th of November 2012, with subsequent performances on the 27th, 28th, and 30th of November and the 3rd of December. The production then travels to Poland, where it will be staged at the National Opera in Warsaw.

Editor: SRS
Source: press release

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