Review / OA’s ‘King Roger’ enlivens the operatic experience

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THERE are seven performances still remaining of Opera Australia’s extraordinary co-production of “King Roger” with the Royal Opera House and Dallas Opera, surely the most sophisticated theatrical work in the company’s repertoire.

Gennadi Dubinsky as Archiereios, Michael Honeyman as King Roger and Dominica Matthews as Deaconess. Photo by Keith Saunders.
Not for the faint-hearted, it’s not a plot-driven opera and indeed the Polish composer Szymanowski preferred to style it a “Sicilian drama”, “Misterium” or spectacle. And yet it is not without structure, as the little-known mediaeval Norman King Roger struggles between controlled rationalism and the darker instincts of human nature, descending into the depths and in the final act emerging to face the light of the sun.

In part it is a Freudian allegory, as a director Kasper Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing must have intended, with a gigantic head dominating the stage, probably indicating the Super-Ego, soon to be challenged and almost destroyed by the Id in the form of a beautiful shepherd who entices Roger, his wife Roxana and the community around them into sensual excess.

‘Orgiastic’ dancers. Photo by Keith Saunders.
But the Shepherd, strangely clad in something looking like a formal Indian bridegroom’s costume, is said to be swathed in vine leaves, indicating that Szymanowski is also depicting the eternal Nietzschean struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces in human nature. Just to complicate matters, the suggestive sexuality of the dancers choreographed by Cathy Marston combines with the orgiastic aggression of Nazi (or in the composer’s case Bolshevik) thugs burning the King’s books. There are many such motifs.

“King Roger” begins with a Byzantine hymn matching the forces of control, represented by Dominica Matthews as the Deaconess and Gennadi Dubinsky as the Archbishop, both dark and authoritarian.

In the background, often half-seen in votive niches, the voices may be heard of the Opera Australia Chorus and a children’s chorus drawn from the Gondwana Choirs subtly waxing and waning as the attractions of both conventional religion and pagan abandonment variously gain the upper hand.

But the forces of control hold sway for a very short time indeed as the lure of the Shepherd (Saimir Pirgu) proves irresistible, first to Roxana (Lorina Gore) and gradually to Roger (Michael Honeyman) himself.

Saimir Pirgu as Shepherd, Lorina Gore as Roxana, Michael Honeyman as King Roger. Photo by Keith Saunders.
This part of the opera, which takes place on the reverse side of the huge head, allows Gore passionate lyrical moments as she recognises her growing need to break out from the stultifying society which opens the action.

Gore, Honeyman and James Egglestone who plays the Muslim scholar Edrisi who finally brings King Roger back to the real world, could have  struggled with the lush, florid libretto of Szymanowski and Jaros?aw Iwaszkiewicz, but then again, since it was sung in Polish there was the option of ignoring the surtitles and allowing the total theatre experience to rule.

Make no mistake, this is not an opera with conventional “tunes”, but rather in the central part at least, we hear a fusion of percussion and the Eastern musical traditions in which Szymanowski had absorbed himself, culminating in barbaric cacophonies that match the savagery of book burning and physical assault. The concluding moments offer a measure of normality as more familiar Polish melodies assert themselves.

In the final act, where, bloodied and beaten, Michael Honeyman as King Roger returns to centre stage, back in the land where he, not Dionysius, rules, there is a striking note of ambiguity.

His last words suggest a willingness to pluck out his heart and present it the sun. This hint of Aztec sacrifice is very far away from the Apollonian ideal of control and balance and on opening night left a disturbing feeling in the stomach, even as the audience rose in fervent applause for a superb production.

In giving Australian audiences the chance to see “King Roger”, Opera Australia has refreshed and enlivened our experience of this art form, as well as offering some of our finest singers (both Honeyman and Gore are graduates of the  School of Music in Canberra) the chance to explore less familiar musical dimensions.












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Helen Musa
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