KING ROGER (Król Roger), Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 20-15 February 2017. Photography by Keith Saunders
A co-production with Covent Garden and Dallas Opera, King Roger arrives in Sydney as OA’s presence in the 2017 Sydney Festival. And it’s a terrific contribution: Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s masterwork from 1926 has only in recent years been taken up by major houses around the world and this is its Australian premiere.
Although on one level about the composer’s fascination with ancient Sicily and Byzantium, King Roger can as easily be seen as a meditation on the internal drama of being human. The spectacular yet simple stage design by Steffen Aarfing lends itself to such an interpretation: a stark, Modernist, tiered arena semi-surrounds a colossal sculpture of a male head.
Ominous shadow effects are achieved by Jon Clark lighting design and with subtle and occasional video images projections (Luke Halls) the great effigy dominates without overpowering the humans who gather around it. And – in the second act – when the skull slowly pins to reveal the inner multi-storey scaffolding structure – inside it, occupied at what could be the subconscious level by a writhing mass of grimy, gleaming yet beautiful male bodies.
At this point it’s impossible not to think that something is literally messing with the king’s head as Roger (Michael Honeyman) struggles to understand and withstand the charismatic power of the rock star-like Shepherd (Saimir Pirgu). This is the man who has enthralled the people and the queen, Roxana (Lorina Gore), like a Pied Piper of sinister sensual promise.
From the hypnotic choral opening moments through the asymmetric yet lyrical qualities of his music, Szymanowski casts a unique spell. There are intimations of southern Europe and the East within the early 20th century musical austerity and yet it’s also subtly Romantic and more accessible to the unfamiliar ear than, say, Janacek or other “modern” composers.
Conductor Andrea Molino makes the very most of the always considerable Opera Australia Orchestra and, in this instance, the hardworking OA Chorus – augmented by boy sopranos – and all voices are tremendous, including – especially – the main players.
Original director Kasper Holten has been well served in Sydney by revival director Amy Lane as his acute and coherent vision of the work is as sharp and well acted as one could wish. Michael Honeyman’s Roger is beautifully sung, his true rich baritone voice seems particularly well suited to the music, as an actor too he shines in the vacillations of a man tormented by the competing demands of kingship, sensuality and spirituality.
Against him, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu somehow makes light of the consistently high range of his role as the Shepherd – the embodiment of an apparently unstoppable Rasputin-Scientologist-style charm offensive.
As Roger’s queen Roxana, Lorina Gore is sure, strong and personifies the regal yet vulnerable woman, starved of affection and meaning and only too ready to take inspiration and warmth when it is presented.
The competing interests of traditional religion and “nice” behaviour are represented by the stern figures of Gennadi Dubinsky as Archiereios and Dominica Matthews as the Deaconess. Both are imposing presences and their vocal qualities are as impressive as their formidable black Orthodox garb.
Also at work in the king’s ear is his friend Edrisi (James Eggleston). Unlike the censorious and dogmatic religious, however, his is the voice of empathetic reason and restraint and he lends an elegant, necessary balance – for the weary 21st century post-truth ear that is.
King Roger is the kind of work some, including me, have been hoping to see in Opera Australia’s repertoire – new (okay, 1926, but new to us) and of a meaty and Modern musical and dramatic style. This production justifies the choice and risky collaboration between companies: it will frighten none but the most intransigent old horses and intrigue and charm the more skittish and adventurous. At just two hours, including interval, King Roger is virtually an aural Tweet and is as concentrated and fascinating as those messages can be. #GetYourTicketsToday.