Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Mariinsky Opera Company: Krol Roger, 27 August 2008, Edinburgh Festival Theatre

It's always interesting to see an opera one has never seen or even heard before. When the opera is by Szymanowski, a composer much of whose music is highly perfumed exoticism - though very enjoyable to listen to - and the performers are from one of Russia's most esteemed opera companies, the anticipation is all the greater. This performance of King Roger did not disappoint. To be sure, it isn't an opera in which there is much physical action: like Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, it mostly consists of people standing (or sitting) and singing at each other. A lot of intense psychological states, then, but if you like your operas to be full of bodies in sacks, frenzied mobs hunting child abusers, elaborate stings to catch philandering aristos, or consumptive courtesans, this one isn't for you. What it did have, according to the programme, was "partial nudity". This, we found, meant "only some of the cast are completely naked in Act Two".

OK, the story is loosely based on The Bacchae by Euripides. An enigmatic religious figure (The Shepherd) turns up and begins attracting converts to his hipyish cult of peace and free love. The church isn't at all happy, and King Roger is about to have the guy locked up when the queen falls under the Shepherd's spell. She convinces Roger to talk with the Shepherd before judging him. When the shepherd arrives, all the king's household are won over and indulge in an orgiastic dance before the Shepherd leads them all away with him, the queen included. Too late, King Roger realises that he wants to fllw him as well. He spends years searching for the Shepherd. When he is dying, his wife appears to him, then the Shepherd in the guise of the god Dionysus. Roger makes a sacrifice to him and dies as the day breaks.

It's not the kind of opera where I feel you gain too much by detailed following of the story line, weird as it is. Better to sit back and let the sensuousness of the music wash you away, which it certainly did on this occasion. Roger was sung by Andrzej Dobber, the Shepherd by Pavlo Tolstoy, and Queen Roxana by Elzbieta Szmytka. Valery Gergiev conducted, and it was ravishing. The sets were simple but striking, and the whole effect quite wonderful. This isn't an opera that I'm ever likely to buy on record, and I doubt I shall see another production, so it had an ephemeral quality as well which seemed not inappropriate for such a Dionysian work.

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