James Egglestone as Edrisi, Gennadi Dubinsky as Archiereios, Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Dominica Matthews as Deaconess, Lorina Gore as Roxana and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s King Roger.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders
There’s a delicious exoticism about capital city of Sicily, Palermo, a heady otherness to the Moorish architecture and Mediterranean sensuality. It’s an atmosphere that could easily intoxicate, especially if you are from the dark, icy North. Especially if you’re searching for your identity and maybe even discovering your sexuality for the first time.
When Karol Szymanowski wrote King Roger the legacy, or lack thereof, of the twelfth century monarch who is the hero of the piece was surely irrelevant. The real point was the discovery of a place, both physical and intellectual, where he could make sense of his identity.
It is, therefore, an inspired stroke to set the action of this production (originally directed by Kasper Holten for Covent Garden and revived here by Amy Lane) around a supersized head. In act one, we are outside the head, which sits menacingly, centre stage, like a colossal graven idol. In act two, the head swivels around to reveal its interior, a confusing mess of staircases and rooms. And in act three, the head is gone, replaced by a smoking pyre. If you interpret the central character, Roger, as a projection, at least partially, of the composer himself then, for me, you are seeing an artist looking outwards, looking inwards, then trying to resolve the two. Or if you are inclined to Freud, the Super-Ego, the Id and the Ego.
It’s not really a story. It’s more a state of mind, a philosophy, dramatised. King Roger’s kingdom is peopled by sombre suits and sensible shoes. Their singing is weighty, majestic. Dour. Then in walks the Shepherd, a preacher dressed in orange silk, offering a new god, one which embraces freedom, beauty, pleasure. Unlimited pleasure. And in amongst it all, a visible invisible troupe of male bodies, winding and curling and flexing, like the ungovernable Id.
If King Roger isn’t really King Roger, and the setting isn’t really twelfth century Palermo but the inside of a large head, then what is left of Sicily, the setting which so inspired Szymanowksi? Where is the complex, multivalent, cultural mishmash of Palermo? That, for me, is in the music. It’s not a pastiche. It’s shot through with influences, but it’s not trying to dissemble, to be other than what it is. It’s more a palimpsest, layer upon layer of sounds and gestures and timbres.
To be honest, I found it hard to take it all in. Conductor Andrea Mollina did a magnificent job in teasing out the many threads, allowing delicate passages to find their way through the heft, and providing a solid superstructure on which to build the singers’ intimidating edifice. Michael Honeyman, in the title role, was commanding vocally and physically, and Lorina Gore, as Roxana, was dazzling. As for the Shepherd, I suspect Saimir Pirgu will win many followers. Rich and true, sitting evenly in the centre of the note, with the power to sing quietly as well as loud, this is not a voice you hear everyday.
Indeed, it’s not an opera you hear everyday. It’s a puzzle and a problem and a pleasure, and Opera Australia are to be congratulated for taking it on. If you haven’t seen it, you’d better be quick and get over to the Opera House because there are only three more performances. And you might never get another chance.
King Roger, Sydney Opera House, Weds 8 and 15 February at 7.30pm, Saturday 11 February at 1pm.
If you’ve got this far, why not go further and read about my book project, Sanctuary? Extracts, video trailer and details about how to get it here.