Thursday 28 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: King Roger, 27 August 2008

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Roger – Andrzej Dobber
Roxana – Elzbieta Szmytka
Edrisi – Sergei Semishkur
Shepherd – Pavlo Tolstoy
Archbishop – Yury Vorobiev
Deaconess – Lyubov Sokolova

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlička (designs)
Marc Heinz (lighting)
Wojciech Dziedzic (costumes)
Tomek Wygoda (choreographer)

Mariinsky Opera Company
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

No one who heard this performance should be under any doubt that King Roger (or Król Roger, in Polish) is a masterpiece. I have seen a great deal of nonsense written about it, including the bizarre claim that there is nothing much in the way of plot. King Roger needs no excuses; what it needs is performances. Covent Garden, are you listening? Probably not, for nothing must interfere with the nth revival of Tosca or La Bohème. (Who actually goes to these things every season?!)

Having been severely disappointed, indeed disillusioned, with ‘Gergiev’s Mahler’, it was a delight to hear Valery Gergiev back on form. He proved himself just as fine a Szymanowskian as Sir Simon Rattle. And his Mariinsky forces were on superlative form too: sultry, seductive, yet precise where necessary too. Gergiev imparted an impeccable sense of forward momentum, without ever driving the music hard. We can all pick out the influences and/or parallels in Szymanowski’s music: Debussy above all here, but also Bartók, Strauss, Wagner, even early Schoenberg. Yet there is undoubtedly an individual voice too, a voice we heard clearly on this occasion. With the possible exception of Elzbieta Szmytka as Roxana, this was not a performance of truly outstanding vocal performances, but there were no weak links either and there was a real sense of a company on stage. Andrzej Dobber was a more than reliable Roger, faithfully served by Sergey Semishkur as Edrisi. After some slightly wayward intonation during the first act, Pavlo Tolstoy impressed as a charismatic Shepherd/Dionysus. Szmytka reminded us of her long pedigree in this music and acted well too.

Mariusz Treliński’s production seemed well considered on the whole. I was not entirely sure why the opera needed updating; it is not as if any of us can have been sated with ‘traditional’ productions. I was less concerned about the loss of the period than that of place, although I should not wish to exaggerate; it seemed a pity though. The sets were generally striking, although the church setting for the first act was uncompromisingly modernistic. Szymanowski’s music had to portray the exoticism all by itself. It could do that, but I did not quite see why a hint of the Byzantine would have been out of place. I was also somewhat at a loss to understand why all the clergy sported mitres. The mise en scène for the second act, however, seemed perfectly to capture the hothouse atmosphere that incites Roxana and eventually even Roger to follow the Shepherd. It is worth mentioning here the hugely beneficial role played throughout by Marc Heinz’s atmospheric and carefully targeted lighting, as well as Tomek Wygoda’s choreography in this particular scene, a fine portrayal of Dionysian erotic abandon. It seems that Treliński purposely downplayed the homoeroticism of this act, wishing the conflict within Roger’s soul ‘to be seen from a wider perspective, as a tale of self-discovery’. I am not sure that we are so overburdened with such material on the operatic stage that this was as necessary as the director seemed to think, although it did no especial harm either. I cared less for the hospital bed setting of the third act: a little bit clichéd perhaps, notwithstanding the justification of Roger’s illness? But the video projections worked well, as did the blinding light of the sun. Although I may have had doubts about some aspects of the production, they in no way detracted from the performance as a whole.