This extraordinary staging by Opera Australia in the Sydney Opera House is the first time Szymanowski’s King Roger has been performed in Australia. A co-production with the Royal Opera House and Dallas Opera, this production was first presented in Covent Garden, and these performances in the Opera House are the culmination of Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini’s long held ambition to introduce this opera to Australian audiences.
Premiered in Warsaw in 1926, King Roger turns out to be a musico-psychological examination of the composer’s own struggles with issues of his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was hidden. These struggles are represented through a situation involving a fictional King Roger 11 of Sicily (Michael Honeyman), troubled by a demand from his subjects that he punish a young shepherd (Saimir Pirgu) accused of blasphemy for preaching freedom, pleasure and love.
King Roger’s wife, Roxana (Lorina Gore), is drawn to the teachings of the shepherd, and persuades the king to arrange a private meeting to allow the shepherd to explain himself. At this meeting, the king finds himself attracted by the shepherd’s seductive urgings.
Szymanowki’s music is melodic and inventive, demanding massive choral and orchestral resources. Probably the only conductor in the world to conduct this opera from memory, Andrea Molino deftly moulds the Sydney Children’s Choir, the Opera Australia chorus and orchestra into an intoxicating kaleidoscope of luscious sound to compliment director, Kasper Holten, and designer Steffan Aarfing’s compelling visual concept.
Though sometimes presenting a wall of sound, the music is surprisingly transparent, and Molino takes great care to ensure that the musical detail is apparent to the listener.
The opera commences quietly, gentle choral music suggesting a cathedral. But slowly a huge sculptured head of the king is carved out by lights and dominates the stage for the first act. As the opera continues, the head revolves to be inhabited by the king and a troupe of muscular young men who writhe and disport themselves erotically in a strikingly vivid portrayal of the king’s mental state.
The final act takes place around a bonfire of burning books, culminating with the king arriving at his decision and being transformed by the golden morning sun.
Although much of the opera is static, and the libretto fairly incomprehensible, the intent of the opera always remains clear. The direction is careful to ensure that the attention of the audience is always focussed on the protagonists, never allowing the spectacle to distract from the emotions being portrayed by the impeccably chosen cast.
Displaying impressive stage presence in the role of King Roger, Michael Honeyman employs his superb dramatic baritone voice to great effect, convincingly portraying his character’s mental anguish without resorting to melodrama. As his queen, Roxana, Lorina Gore delights with her lustrous silvery tone and glamourous stage presence. Her confident interpretation of the demanding score confirms her as one of Opera Australia’s most accomplished and exciting singers.
As the third member of this triangle, Saimir Pirgu, in his first appearances with Opera Australia, having sung this role previously in London, was perfect casting in the role of The Shepherd. His confident demeanour, delightfully bright, flexible voice and suave good looks made it easy to believe in his power to bewitch both the king and queen and their subjects.
Completing an outstanding cast, Gennadi Dubinsky and Dominica Matthews, as the Archbishop and the Deaconess, and James Egglestone as the king’s advisor, Edrisi, each contributed thrilling singing and intelligently considered performances in an outstanding production destined to become a treasured experience for anyone lucky enough to experience it.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Season continues to 15 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Saimir Pirgu as Shepherd, the Opera Australia Chorus and dancers in Opera Australia’s King Roger – photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens