Undoing imagination

James Whiting: Opera Australia, King Roger

King Roger

King Roger

King Roger

A soot-smeared Queen lifts her husband’s hands and presses them shut over his eyes. She implores him to see in the darkness, to imagine a shepherd-god who exists in the “smile of the stars—the sound of the storms.” This moment attained a surprising sense of truth in Kasper Holten’s production of Karol Szymanowski’s 1926 opera King Roger.

The opera, a Nietzschean reading of Euripides’ Bacchae, centres on the tension between Apollonian ideals of intellect and Dionysian ideals of sensuality. The plot presents a King drawn into this conflict that not only challenges his authority, as a mysterious Shepherd spreads a wild religion in his land, but also his sense of self and purpose in life. His wife Roxana is converted to the Shepherd’s faith and Roger concludes the opera, attended by his constant advisor Edrisi, seemingly ready to re-dedicate his life to something beyond these clashing ideals.

A giant, sculpted head towers as focal visual metaphor, first governing the space as statue in Act I, then revolving open in the second to reveal Roger’s mindscape. There, wisdom, shown as stacks of books, is confronted by erotic impulse, conjured by a bevy of begrimed, masked, semi-naked, male dancers at the base of the head. During an exotic dance they take over Roger’s skull, hurling the books away in an illustration of the King’s inner turmoil. In the final act, all that remains onstage is a smouldering pyre that becomes the site for a dangerous ritual led by the Shepherd.

The combination of music and stage movement sustains tension throughout the performance. Called before the King in Act I, the Shepherd is hurried onstage by the crowd, spat on and shoved to the ground to music that anticipates his arrival. The serene lyricism that suggests his confident gaze and dignified approach to the King is reassigned to Roxana who stands with a look of pity above the prostrate Shepherd and turns to her husband with pleading eyes.

In the second act, a pantomimic orchestral hubbub evokes the passage of the Shepherd and his followers into the guarded courtyard. A sudden restatement of the melody that opens the Shepherd’s aria, “My God is beautiful as I am,” cues the moment where Roger glimpses him through the crowd. As the Shepherd completes his entry the orchestra repeats the theme, this time in a climactic explosion. The impression is of a grandiose encounter that is almost an erotic consummation, a moment of marked homoeroticism. In this staging the Shepherd simply walked into the giant head after dancers pelvic-thrusted to the music.

While I defend an opera director’s right to push against musical signification, opportunities for clarity, delicacy of action and sensitive characterisation were missed here. Holten acknowledged the work’s homoerotic nuances elsewhere with gestures such as Roger reaching out for the Shepherd’s hand in Act I before pulling away at the last moment. Later, while facing one another, the pair raised hands to their faces as though they reflected each other in a mirror.

Directorial choices such as these shifted focus away from the attraction between Roger and the Shepherd, instead emphasising the psychosexual relationship of the royal couple. Roxana’s slinky 20s costuming, especially her Louise Brooks bob, recalled Berg’s Lulu. Her stretching out to embrace her husband and suggestively rubbing her breasts and hips, signalled an operatic seductress, the ubiquitous femme-fatale. The portrayal felt like an oversimplification of Roxana’s character, framing her as a figure of stereotypical operatic melodrama, as if opera’s go-to subject material must be passionate love and woman’s only role therein the sexualised object and instigator of desire. Mitigating this effect, Holten, if only initially, observed Szymanowski’s direction that Roxana remain “unseen” during her aria. The sensuous undulations of her opening vocalise allowed, if only for a precious moment, the voice not the body to operate as erotic material.

King Roger

King Roger

King Roger

The manipulation of the chorus could have benefited from greater attention. Instead of participating in the Shepherd’s dance and gradually losing themselves in Dionysian ecstasy, they filed onstage to raise their hands in adulation before scurrying off again. This snap conversion was hard to credit after their stentorian piety was driven home in the first act. Though they often appeared more as a mass rather than a collection of participants in the drama, their musical contribution deserves nothing but praise.

Holten’s substitute for a full-throttle Dionysian ritual in Act III was a book-burning that involved the full company. The choice of this demonstration, recalling those overseen by the Third Reich, was an effectively confrontational evocation of what the experience of witnessing a Dionysian ceremony might be. Despite its visual efficacy, this moment was confusing in the context of the production’s ideology. Was the audience being prompted to equate Dionysian ideals with the rise of totalitarianism? Surely fascist regimes are to be condemned equally for their brand of unfeeling rationalism, an Apollonian ideal, as well as any sensual corruption.

Notes in the program seemed to apologise for the intention of the production, glossing that “inner conflict isn’t the easiest thing to put on stage.” This however was the height of the production’s accomplishment: using visual metaphor to suggest a psychodrama. Other notes observed how Szymanowski conceived of the work less as an opera than as a “sort of mysterium,” something between naturalistic drama and impersonal allegory. The characters in the opera are half-human, half symbolic. They comment on human experiences but not in everyday human speech or behaviour. Attempting to ground them in a worldly context cannot bring them to the same level of humanity as the audience. Holten regrettably never allowed his Shepherd to achieve the awesome status of god. In trying to render this opera significant to the experiences of a modern audience, this staging achieves only half success. What these characters might look like and do if they were people living in the 1920s comes across loud and clear. What’s missing is a sense of divinity that cannot be seen—divinity that can only manifest, as witnessed by the Queen’s covering of her husband’s eyes, in an activated imagination.

Royal Opera House London and Opera Australia, King Roger, composer Karol Szymanowski, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, 20 Jan-15 Feb; Arts Centre Melbourne, 19-27 Jan

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© James Whiting; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

8 February 2017