Perhaps this production will become (in)famous for featuring a really big head onstage. We’re talking about fifty feet high or something. Certainly it didn’t have much else to recommend it, apart from some admittedly fine singing here and there, of which more later. “Roger” is an opera I like a lot, mainly for the libretto by Szymanowski and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and for the shifting leitmotiv filled musical score. To my mind Holten didn’t do it full justice.
Why did director Kapser Holten need the head anyway? I would have enjoyed this more as straight psychodrama, or at least something set more literally: a king, a court, a throne even. Alas no. We were subject to a massive fiberglass eminence (designed by Steffen Aarfing) which resembled Oswald Spengler, upon which were projected the now (for Holten) de rigueur video shenanigans, this time relatively understated compared with his very busy Don Giovanni and at least imbued with a logic, with some hint of good intention, and not just video for video’s sake.
Had the head been truly necessary, as Holten deems it, I would have liked it to remain like the “elephant in the room” perhaps. Left unnoticed, and untouched, an extradiegetic object in the character’s world: i,e. not actually in it, uncanny – monolithic with import. It should have been emblematic of the sublime, much like the Shepherd. Instead, it is just a big head. Instead, it ponderously revolves to reveal itself hollow, and to become a key part of what little action there is.
Yes, we “get” that Roger is going a bit nuts, but I don’t have to see it taking place in the big head -almost literally a Cartesian theatre of the mind – complete with seething libidial underlayer full of writhing semi-naked hunks. Said hunks writhed a lot, and climbed around whilst Roger’s little homunculi (Kwiecien) roamed around the head. I don’t have to be shown that Roger is going out of his mind by going into it. All very heavy handed.
The hunks then abducted Georgia Jarman’s Roxanna and tormented Roger, who later, in a fit of psychic distress….took of his shirt (??)…to expose his well toned, hairless chest. As one does. The net result was a Roger with minimal characterisation, whose main concession to acting out the music of Syzmanowski’s score was to shout angrily at the floor a lot (mainly to shout “ROXANNNNAAAA” a lot). The effect wasn’t too edifying.
Holten also used the head to suggest libidinal forces. Video projection blossomed across the head when Roger touched the head’s lips, extended to flush the face, before glowing the braincase itself: a clear message that in Roger’s world, sensation would triumph mentation – a neat touch I suppose but after that, things went downhill.
Roxanna herself (Georgia Jarman) was excellently sung, a queen with sass and guile, her infamous song, sinuous, full of seduction and appeal: everything he composer would have wanted. In the crowd vs Roger scenes her vocal line demands she push through the melee of sound, and that she did with aplomb. Samir Pirgu’s Shepherd was in fantastic voice too, vocally strident, beautiful in places too. He was with a shade less direction than I would have liked. The libretto had to help explain temptation, where acting could have reinforced this a little more. (One wonders what this piece would be like in the hands of a master such as Bieito.)
The boys choir singing “on the golden throne above the clouds” right at the start of the opera sounded a smidge flat, and Alan Ewing‘s Greek priest (the words are Greek, Hagio Kryios etc etc) sounded alarmingly “gurgly”.
At least Holten was true to Szymanowski‘s stage directions: the request for a ruined amphitheatre in Act III is suggested by the curved back wall, which I thought more like funerary niches. There’s also big paper globe lightshade, much like the one I had in my bedroom when young which Roger reverently beholds as symbol of spiritual release. It still looked more like the lightshade I had in my bedroom when I was young, to me. I would have liked the final salute to the sun (a glorious moment in C major) to have been slightly sunnier though, more Mazdean, primitive, and a turning away from higher thoughts, but it wasn’t to be.
“Fear sings in the darkness” says the shepherd, but this was more like Kwiecien twitching a bit with the above mentioned shouting – less “lonely depths of power” than a man with a bad migraine and a touch of anger issues. I would have enjoyed more tension between the shepherd’s promise of the sensual and Roger’s fragile authority, a suggestion of kingly impotence in the face of this threat of sensuality, the Bacchic allure more keenly shown. Mention of swans, lotus, jasmine, the sea, meadows, Benares, the Ganges, the Night which swallows them, all is temptation, and all should threaten Roger, but here didn’t. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. The first production of King Roger at The Royal Opera House failed to do it justice, and was an inauspicious debut for it.
Perhaps I will like it more if I watch it online, on the 16th?
LINK: I found a nice thesis on King Roger. Worth a read.
(In its defence, I guess you could say the head is Ozymandian, or Constantinean, colossal in size, symbolic of hubris and so on and so on, but I don’t think those concerns are in the libretto.)