Inaugural festivities for the Polish EU Presidency were topped by the premiere of Karol Szymanowski’s magnum opus "King Roger" at the Grand Theatre - National Opera House on the evening of July 1. Staged by the British opera director David Pountney, the production breathes new life into the early 20th-century score.
King Roger is set in the 12th-century kingdom of Sicily under the rule of King Roger II, a member of the Norman dynasty. The opera, based on the libretto written by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, originally premiered on 19 June 1926 at Grand Theatre in Warsaw, directed by Adolf Popławski and conducted by Emil Młynarski. David Pountney's production originally premiered at the annual festival in Bregenz in July 2009, also to a great deal of acclaim. Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski also brought his own production of King Roger across Europe between 2009 and 2011, most recently taking the stage at Madrid's Teatro Real last spring.
The opera returned to Warsaw's most prestigious opera venue under the reigns of acclaimed director David Pountney. According to Poutney, the score's 'musical richness results from Szymanowski's fascination with Byzantine architecture, its richness and ornamentation'.
Pountney has noted that when directing opera works he strives for stage design to never rival the music. 'To avoid competing with Szymanowski’s rich and lively music, we chose a very toned-down and calm artistic language for the performance'. According to the director, the most important characteristics of the whole work and of the set design, arranged by Raimund Bauer, is ambiguity, hidden meanings and enigmatic nature. 'The opera's ending is particularly mysterious. In fact, everyone may interpret it in a different way', he remarks.
Regarded by some as his magnum opus, King Roger was written at the time of the composer's immense interest in Antiquity, the Orient and the culture of the Mediterranean. It was also inspired by his 1911 journey to Italy. It is the composer's second opera after his 1913 Hagith.
During a service at Palermo Cathedral, King Roger, his wife Roxanne and advisor Edrisi learn that the Church is threatened by the founder of a new religion, a young and beautiful Shepherd. Summoned to the sanctuary, he is accused of heresy. Despite the crowd's aggression, the royal couple are impressed by the gentleness and humility of the Shepherd, grant him life and summon him to the court. The Shepherd escapes the castle, with Roxanne fast on his heels. The King gives up the throne and goes searching for his Queen. He finds her with the Shepherd in the ruins of an ancient theatre in Syracuse and they all come together in a divine celebration of the Shepherd's true form. The three acts span 'Byzantine', 'Oriental' and 'Greco-Roman' periods, respectively.
The cast includes Scott Hendricks as King Roger, Olga Pasiecznik as Roxanne, along with Karol Kozłowski (Edrisi), Will Hartmann (Shepherd), Mieczysław Milun (Archiereios) and Agnieszka Rehlis (Diakonissa). The National Orchestra performs under the baton of Jacek Kaspszyk.
American baritone Scott Hendricks portrays Roger as a conflicted man, torn between his qualities as a strong leader and the feeble reality of his rule, who desires a life of sensual fulfillment. He is simultaneously magisterial and helpless in this truly powerful interpretation. As his wife, Roxana, soprano Olga Pasiecznik is completely entranced by the mysterious Shepherd. The pinnacle of her fine performance comes in Act II, when she sings an alluring song to Roger, less to seduce him than to cajole him into sparing the Shepherd. Will Hartmann portrays the Shepherd with great poise, capturing the qualities of confidence, mystery and lurid sexuality that embody the character.
- Arlo McKinnon in Opera News, December 2010
Following its premiere in Warsaw on the 1st of July the performance repeats on the 3rd and 5th. The production is set to enjoy is Belgian premiere at Brussels' La Monnaie in early September as part of the International Cultural Programme of the Polish Presidency of the EU Council. The life and works of Karol Szymanowski are among the six main flagship projects of the international cultural programme.
David Pountney made his mark on the world of opera with his production of Katya Kabanova at the 1972 Wexford Festival. Between 1975-80, David Pountney was Director of Production for Scottish Opera. He produced the world première of David Blake's Toussaint in 1977 at the English National Opera and went on to become Director of Productions in 1980, directing over twenty operas. He has directed over ten world premieres, including three by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies for which he also wrote the libretto, and has translated many operas into English from Russian, Czech, German and Italian. David Pountney was made a CBE and a Chevalier in the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1993.
1st of July, 2011. Repeat performances: 3rd - 5th of July
Grand Theatre - National Opera House
Grand Theatre - National Opera House, Adam Mickiewicz Institute
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