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Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, January 2011

Of all the singers Pasichnyk scores the highest marks. She knocks the cruel high notes out with force and intensity. The singers of the Camerata Silesia, Polish Radio Choir of Cracow, and the Bregenz Musikhauptschule Children’s Chorus are magnificent. The Vienna Symphony has completely mastered the intricate score, and Elder drives them and the chorus into a sonic frenzy.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Patrick Neas
The Kansas City Star, January 2011

This is another offbeat opera that will probably never be a part of the standard repertoire, but a new DVD from C Major shows it to be an utterly unique and moving masterpiece. Karol Szymanowski wrote the work after many years of traveling the Mediterranean in the early 20th century, absorbing its culture and religion. The mystical philosophy he acquired during his journey permeates the opera.

King Roger, sung by baritone Scott Hendricks, is the Christian ruler of 12th century Sicily who falls under the sway of a heretical shepherd sung by Will Hartmann. The shepherd, who is eventually transformed into the god Dionysius, leads the king into a more universal, all-embracing spirituality. The highly stylized production brings out the liturgical quality of the opera and quite effectively emphasizes the transcendent.

Szymanowski’s score for “King Roger” is an intoxicating blend of Eastern Orthodox choral harmonies and glittering Ravelian orchestration. This is another opera that won’t have you whistling any arias, but the music rewards with much more than mere tunefulness. You may not remember any of the melodies, but you’ll never forget the haunting quality of the music or the mesmerizing images.

Jerome R. Sehulster
The Connecticut Post, December 2010

Karol Szymanowski’s wild and ecstatic “King Roger” (DVD, C Major) from the Bregenzer Festspiele, 2009, stars Scott Hendricks as Roger, Olga Pasichnyk as his wife Roxana, John Graham-Hall as Edrisi, and Will Hartmann as the Shepherd. It’s a loud, bloody mess, basically, but David Pountney’s staging spares none of the ecstasy and it’s well sung. The performances (and subtitles) go far to illuminate this intriguing mystical 20th century opera.

Arlo McKinnon
Opera News, December 2010

SZYMANOWSKI, K.: King Roger (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 702808
SZYMANOWSKI, K.: King Roger (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 702904

Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) is a key figure in the rich history of Polish music. Although not outrageously prolific, Szymanowski wrote many works that have retained interest, now almost a century after their creation. Among these is his second opera, Król Roger (King Roger). In the years immediately preceding World War I, Szymanowski spent a lot of time traveling in the Mediterranean region. He gained inspiration for many of his musical, literary and poetical works from these travels, including the ideas behind King Roger, completed in 1924.

King Roger is set in twelfth-century Sicily. The king at that time, Roger II, was a man of Norman ancestry who was heavily engaged in the politics of southern Italy and in the contemporaneous schism within the Church. He welcomed intellectual and cultural ties with Europe proper and with the Islamic culture of the south bank of the Mediterranean. Using this figure as a springboard, Szymanowski concocted a story that includes strong elements of both Western and Eastern Christianity, as well as the paganism of ancient Rome.

Szymanowski’s opera unfolds in a highly erotic, pantheistic atmosphere. The music, especially in its orchestral aspect, shows the influences of Ravel and Debussy and also resonates with the sound world of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Most of the singing is in an arioso styling—i.e., through-composed rather than in set pieces or arias. King Roger is an opera whose story is advanced more through the characters’ evolving attitudes than through action or dialogue. No doubt, this has been a factor in its relative obscurity. Szymanowski uses his ravishing orchestral palette as the primary means of conveying these abstract concepts, creating a highly sensual effect.

This DVD release documents a live performance from the 2009 Bregenz Festival. It features an inspired production by stage director David Pountney and an excellent cast, chorus and orchestra under the impassioned musical direction of Mark Elder. Pountney has opted to use one set for all three acts, varying the lighting style for each act. This production is a model of inventiveness in the modernistic style, minimalist and abstract yet extremely effective.

American baritone Scott Hendricks portrays Roger as a conflicted man, torn between his qualities as a strong leader and the feeble reality of his rule, who desires a life of sensual fulfillment. He is simultaneously magisterial and helpless in this truly powerful interpretation. As his wife, Roxana, soprano Olga Pasichnyk is completely entranced by the mysterious Shepherd. The pinnacle of her fine performance comes in Act II, when she sings an alluring song to Roger, less to seduce him than to cajole him into sparing the Shepherd. Will Hartmann portrays the Shepherd with great poise, capturing the qualities of confidence, mystery and lurid sexuality that embody the character. John Graham-Hall portrays Edrisi, Roger’s Arabic advisor, as an aging, ineffectual counselor, bewildered and transfixed by the Shepherd. Beate Vollack’s choreography is masterful yet unobtrusive, a crowning touch to this superb production.

Robert Benson, December 2010

SZYMANOWSKI, K.: King Roger (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 702808
SZYMANOWSKI, K.: King Roger (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 702904

Of major interest is this DVD of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, a rare opportunity to see this opera about the conflict between Christianity and pagan rituals. Originally the composer called this work “A Sicillan Drama,” then “The Shepherd.” Each of the three acts was to take place in a different location. In this production by David Pountney from the Bregenz Festival July 2009, all of the action takes place on a simple platform with white stairs. All effects are achieved through lighting and shadows.The exotic music suggests Richard Strauss and Scriabin with a touch of Ravel. The mystic plot is, to put it mildly, confusing. The King is expected to condemn a mysterious heretic shepherd who supposedly has seen God. The shepherd eventually leaves with Roxana, the King’s wife, and they enter a world of orgiastic celebration. At the opera’s conclusion the King refuses to be led into another world. This performance is excellent in every, and well photographed. Audio is satisfactory although somewhat cavernous. While it might not be an undiscovered masterpiece, King Roger has much to offer, and this DVD makes a strong case for it.

Richard Fairman
Gramophone, November 2010

Szymanowki’s mystical opera in a production from the Bregenz Festival

This DVD has the market to itself. The reasons are not hard to find: Szymanowki’s opera, almost more an oratorio, does not come round often in the opera house and so there have been relatively few stage productions. Loosely based on Euripides’ gory mythic tragedy Bacchae, it explores Dionysiac desires in the depths of the human soul, and anybody listening at home might feel that its psychological drama belongs as much in the mind’s eye as it does on the stage or screen.

The director, David Pountney, seems quite reasonably to have felt that it could be counterproductive to try to depict visually the luscious exoticism in which the music is already so heavily soaked. There is no attempt to present colourful stage pictures of Byzantine churches and oriental palaces. The entire opera is played out on a white set of steps but the striking use of lighting and other visual effects mean the production is not nearly as limited as it might sound. The aftermath of the orgiastic celebrations, with some participants drenched in blood and others wearing giant oxens’ heads, is as vividly evocative as any traditional production might be.

Overall, the cast is a decent one. The sturdy baritone of Scott Hendricks suits the title-role well, and Will Hartmann sings strongly as the Shepherd (a few touches of strain apart) and looks splendid when he is finally revealed as the god Dionysus, covered from head to toe in gold paint and glitter. Olga Pasichnyk makes a seductive Roxana and John Graham-Hall an intelligent if vocally wobbly Edrisi. In Szymanowski’s mystical and exotic score Mark Elder gets good playing from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Those who are happy to imagine the world of King Roger for themselves might prefer Rattle’s award-winning CD, given the benefit of a spacious EMI studio recording. Otherwise, this makes a very acceptable DVD choice.

BBC Music Magazine, November 2010


King Roger has long been one of those early 20th-century operas that has held a place in the affections of connoisseurs rather than on the stage.

A recent surge in productions is beginning to change that—though many performances have only highlighted the pitfalls of Szymanowski’s masterpiece, a static work that owes something of its mystery-play nature to Parsifal (though there is nothing Wagnerian about the later work’s striking compactness).

Last year’s production at the Bregenz Festival is easily the finest representation of the opera I have seen, and its qualities are all preserved on screen.

Premiered in Warsaw in 1926, Szymanowski’s Byzantine Sicily-inspired masterpiece evokes its story of conflict between Christianity and pagan culture in music where where East meets West.

The director David Pountney ditches the original Palermo setting in favour of severe abstraction, but fills the stage with unusually detailed and gripping action. Raimund Bauer’s set suggests a segment of an amphitheatre, and its plain white surfaces are imaginatively lit by Fabrice Kebour—everything (and everyone) turning increasingly red in the final act as the sacrificial blood seeps in.

Boasting a rich baritone, Scott Hendricks is a magnificent Roger, played as if on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Olga Pasichnyk sings glitteringly as his queen, Roxana, and both the tenor roles, with John Graham-Hall as Edrisi and Will Hartmann as the Shepherd, are very well filled. Under Mark Elder, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s playing is taut yet richly-charged. John Allison

Parterre Box, October 2010

The relative obscurity of Karol Szymanowski’s Krol Roger (King Roger, 1924) can only be blamed on its being in Polish. The music is often as thrilling as anything by Janácek or Bartók, and the libretto by Jaroslow Iwaszkiewicz (heavily adapted by the composer) is as full of provocative philosophical ideas as operas by those composers or even Wagner.

A further complication may be that, at about 90 minutes, its three acts work best performed continuously, as they are in the new DVD from the Bregenzer Festspiele, directed by David Pountney.

Like Elektra, Bluebeard’s Castle, or From the House of the Dead, it’s a bit short for a full evening, but hard to place on a double bill. Lacking a “name” composer, however, King Roger has perhaps been seen as a tricky proposition, and received its North American stage debut only in 2008 at that haven for musical obscurity, the Bard SummerScape Festival.

In fact it would make a fine curtain-raiser for Bluebeard’s Castle. Like Bartók’s one-acter, King Roger shapes a legendary story into a highly schematic opera of ideas in which an horrific ending reads more as an inevitable intellectual Q.E.D. than as a human tragedy. Like Bartók, Szymanowski provides more than enough moments of musical excitement to keep the chess pieces moving.

The ostensible leaping-off point for King Roger is a retelling of Euripides’s Bacchae, transported to medieval Sicily, and cast as a collision between Christianity (portrayed as a Western-Byzantine hybrid) and a charismatic paganism that eventually reveals itself (as in Euripides) as a Dionysian cult. But there’s more: the titular king, whose historical namesake did in fact cultivate an unusually cosmopolitan court in the early twelfth century, is not so much a tragic hero caught between two competing religions, but is rather a Nietzschean super-man whose gradual enlightenment allows him to transcend orthodoxy by embracing a sensualized will to power.

This enlightenment unfolds over three acts that Szymanowski (directing his librettist) set in locales that migrate culturally from West to East: Christian church, Roman palace, and Greek ruin. Though clearly distinguished in Szymanowski’s music, these settings here blur together on the minimal but gorgeous amphitheater-like unit set, tricked out with moving steps, hidden trapdoors, and striking abstract lighting projections.

Not much is lost by this, since the action is pretty straightforward across the three acts: a strange Shepherd from foreign parts (tenor Will Hartmann, painted gold) preaches a new kind of religion based in nature, love, and sensual abandon. King Roger (baritone Scott Hendricks) first takes the side of religious orthodoxy, represented by the black-clad chorus, but his fascination with the Shepherd is encouraged by his counselor Edrisi (a wobbly John Graham-Hall) and most of all by his wife Roxana (Olga Pasichnyk, bald), who from her first appearance is in thrall to the foreigner. Eventually the chorus succumbs also, and finally Roger himself.

The final moments of the opera are somewhat ambiguous, however: the rest of the throng (according to the libretto) run off with the Shepherd, now recognized as Dionysus, while Roger (and, as always, Edrisi) are left to greet the dawn of a new day. Roger’s enlightenment is emphasized in the end, rather than his devotion to the new god.

Mark Elder leads the Wiener Symphoniker in a detailed yet atmospheric reading of the score, enhanced by forceful choral singing from two Polish choirs and a local boys’ choir. The choral contribution is vital to this opera, most obviously in the absolutely stunning and unprecedented a cappella hymn (stylistically suspended between Rachmaninov and Tavener) that opens the work, so the expense of importing native-speaking choruses was well worth it.

The three principals, on the other hand, are American, British, and Ukrainian, but the language seemed to hold no terrors for them. As Roxana, Pasichnyk has the most dramatic lines, particularly in her Act II aria and several climactic scenes in which she carried well over thick choral and orchestral textures. Hartmann’s Shepherd was also powerful, but I missed the final measure of seductive expressivity in his climactic moments.

Checking the score after hearing the opera I was surprised to see that this role lies lower than I would have thought. The role of King Roger is somewhat less lyrical than the other principals, consisting largely of frustrated prevarication, but Hendricks conveyed the character’s anguish and enlightenment with a focused, expressive sound.

If his characterization lacked subtlety, however, it may be because Pountney’s vision of the work allowed for little. Though the musical expression of enlightenment is conveyed in intensely sensual ways in this opera, it remains fundamentally spiritual, as Pountney seems not to have realized.

The Shepherd’s appeal is instead seen as primarily physical (and often simply sexual), with the climactic choral scenes in Acts II and III reduced essentially to orgies in the style of Samson et Dalila. The resulting frisson was sometimes effective, particularly when it cast Roger’s dawning self-awareness as a kind of coming out, but it leads to far too much writhing about and open-mouthed gaping as characters traverse an oversimplified spiritual journey.

This production neatly resolves the ambiguity of the final scene in a way which sets the opera’s depiction of a religious cult in a meaningful light. Instead of merely departing for parts unknown, at the height of the final frenzied dance all the human characters quite suddenly do what religious cults often do and slit their wrists, as the shepherd cuts Roxana’s throat.

As they sink to the front of the stage, dying, Roger is revealed not to have taken this final step, and his gesture towards the sunrise symbolizes his escape from the cult as much as the attainment of a new spiritual state. This interpretation is certainly available in the opera as written, but Pountney’s direction gives this scene a strongly grounded dramatic sense that seems lacking in earlier scenes.

Simon Rattle’s recording of the opera on EMI (with Thomas Hampson in the title role) will remain a top audio choice for many, but with a strong cast and orchestra, stunning visuals, and a clear and valid (if sometimes misapplied) directorial vision, the Bregenz King Roger is a worthy first appearance of this vital opera on DVD. Now if only we could see in on more American stages.

Gapplegate Music Review, October 2010

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) is known, at least here in the States, as primarily a composer of solo piano music that takes its cue from Chopin and Scriabin. His harmonically advanced and very pianistic writing has a poetic touch and a depth I for one have appreciated very much over the years.

Szymanowski the composer of large-scale orchestral and operatic works is a lesser known commodity. So when I had a chance to review the new DVD release (C Major) of his opera King Roger I welcomed the chance to get to know the work.

The opera was first performed in the mid-’20s and has not since garnered the sort of standard performance rotation that Berg’s Wozzeck or Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier have achieved. How many 20th century operas enjoy that status in any event?

The work is mid-length, timing in at around 90 minutes. It is scored for soloists, choir and a fairly large orchestra. The libretto is of a symbolic-mystical bent. A charismatic prophet-shepherd comes on the scene and King Roger’s people are divided between followers of the shepherd and those who wish him punished for heresy.

There is a trial scene that ends up with the shepherd summoning his followers and going off into the night. The Queen succumbs to his influence and joins him. And on from there. It’s a libretto filled with mystic ideas and ambiguity. One could say it is somewhat difficult for mainstream audiences to fathom. It accounts in part for the relative neglect the opera has received.

But on the other hand this is a very well-conceived work as music. The orchestral writing is powerful and filled with affect. The principal roles have a heroic tone to them. It is a movingly beautiful work and will appeal to those who like Ravel’s “Daphne and Chloe,” Strauss’ most advanced operas, the orchestral music of Scriabin and perhaps a little in the way of Wagner’s epic largess as well.

The performance on the DVD is quite good. The Vienna Symphony under Sir Mark Elder is ravishingly sensual or stupendously gigantic when called upon to be so. The various choral groups involved achieve a glowing sonority and give their parts all they deserve. The principal roles are handled excellently by the singers involved. Scott Hendricks as King Roger is especially effective, no mean feat when singing against the massed choral and orchestral resources that would all-but-defeat a less robust vocal instrument.

The sound is good overall. It is a live recording so on occasion the vocal protagonists can vary in balance level according to where they are on stage and the relative dynamic level of the orchestra in any given passage.

David Poultney’s staging is minimalist and dramatic. The stage is set up as a sort of half amphitheatre with stepped levels occupying the entire stage. It is through very effect use of spot and overall colored lighting that moods are created and sustained. It comes off quite well.

The DVD medium is ideal for bringing the total gestalt of the opera across to the viewer-listener. You hear in vivid sound the score and its fine interpretation; you experience the starkly effective staging; and you experience the libretto in its full context. Szymanowski’s King Roger lives or dies on the merits of its music. It is not completely convincing as a story-plot. Musically it is a very powerful work. I came away from it all with a much greater appreciation of Szymanowski’s compositional breadth. In its own way King Roger constitutes a forgotten masterpiece of the 20th century. And this DVD production seems like an ideal way to appreciate its strengths. Recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, August 2010

King Roger is Karol Szymanowski’s 1926 opera issued in this Felix Breisach-directed production on C Major/Unitel Classica DVD, though please note a Blu-ray is also available [702904].  Sir Mark Elder conducts the Wiener Symphoniker in this very well produced, energetic, impressive performance...Scott Hendricks is the lead and I liked the use of lighting and especially color, while the dancers and singers were great.  The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 video from what is likely a 1080i shoot is a little weak with motion blur and softness, but I bet the Blu-ray would look better.  The DTS 5.1 mix is excellent and better than the decent PCM 2.0 Stereo mix, both form the well-recorded master and an informative booklet is also included.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group