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Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, May 2011

For the first two acts, David Pountney’s new staging of King Roger—a co-production of the Bregenz Festival and the Gran Teatre del Liceu—makes a stunning visual effect. Apparently working on the assumption that the music itself is sufficiently lush and complex, Pountney goes for arresting simplicity. There’s no scenery; instead, the stage is a plain amphitheater garnished with gorgeous lighting effects, often surprising but never hyperactive; the blocking, especially of the chorus, produces striking abstract designs. Yes, there are some distracting touches. It’s easy to accept Roger’s shaved head, but Roxana’s, which makes her seem like a concentration-camp inmate, seems a detail demanding an explanation that never comes. The Shepherd’s act II appearance—red dress and provocative pose—is too over-the-top for this opera; King Roger may be an attempt by Szymanowski to navigate his homosexuality but it is surely not campy. And perhaps because he doesn’t trust the patience of his audience, Pountney adds a lot of jumping and writhing to moments that could well be treated more statically. Still, it’s a mesmerizing visual experience that draws us into Szymanowski’s strange world.

Things fall apart, though, for the last act, where Pountney’s choices counteract both music and text. Substituting violence for ecstasy, Pountney smears nearly everyone in blood, the apparent result of some rather messy and cruel animal sacrifices; instead of leading Roxana off, Dionysus slits her throat in a final sacrificial act; and following a Jim-Jonesian mass suicide, Roger sings his final hymn to the sun on a stage strewn with dead bodies—including Edrisi’s. The ambiguity of the ending has been replaced by sheer incoherence.

Still, despite the miscalculations, there are enough moments of visual genius to make this well worth watching—and the musical performance is well worth hearing as well. Scott Hendricks is a sonorous Roger, slightly stiff in his phrasing (especially toward the beginning), but convincing in his tormented growth into freedom and understanding; Will Hartmann is a strong foil, handling the long sensuous lines with superb self-confidence; and if Olga Pasichnyk has neither the strength nor always the agility for the extremely demanding part of Roxana, her characterization is sure and her quieter passages often quite lovely. Elder and the orchestra are clearly enjoying the chance to luxuriate in Szymanowski’s extravagances; if balances are sometimes askew, there’s never a loss of musical motion. The choral work is outstanding. As for the Blu-ray’s technical aspects: The sound is good, if not as immediate and timbrally well defined as that on this same company’s recent Ring and Turandot; the video quality is first-rate.

Recommendation? If you don’t know this opera, your best starting point is the classic EMI audio-only performance featuring Hampson (glowing in the title role) and Rattle (in the words of Adrian Corleonis, “alive to every shimmering, shivering surge, every whisper, every intimation of Szymanowski’s exquisitely refracted orchestral palette,”). This is, in a sense, a dream opera—and like Erwartung, Bluebeard’s Castle, and perhaps even Pelléas, it arguably works better in your imagination than it does in a concrete realization on stage. Still, once you’ve imagined it, you’ll want to share someone else’s vision—so anyone who’s been infected by King Roger will surely want this new version as a supplement.

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.

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.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, October 2010

King Roger (Unitel Classics Blu-ray), Karol Szymanowski’s glorious operatic masterpiece, is barely heard or staged—so this strikingly abstract staging from Austria’s Bregenz Festival is a most welcome addition to Blu-ray

Jeffrey Kauffman, September 2010

Szymanowski based his title character on an actual Sicilian King, Roger II (1095-1154), who managed to simultaneously bridge and alienate the Eastern and Western worlds, with their attendant religions, working with a Muslim counselor while ultimately taking Pope Innocent captive until the Pope acknowledged his Kingship. Szymanowski doesn’t get into these intrigues specifically; instead he paints a portrait of an “official” state religion coming smack up against a mysterious prophet. Szymanowski split his opera into three acts, each with their own religious and sociopolitical referents. Act I is Byzantine in nature, and offers some extremely evocative, more or less diatonic, choral music which aptly recreates a church setting. Act II moves to the royal palace and invokes a kind of Orientalism which some might associate more with the Russian composers of the late 19th century (Szymanowski, despite being of Polish heritage, actually grew up in the Ukraine). The third act harkens back to ancient Greece, though in this act Szymanowski chooses not to ape musically. While in “traditional” productions of King Roger (as few and far between as they actually have been) tend to feature a Greek amphitheater in only the third act, here director David Pountney stages the entire opera on and around the steps of one, letting some evocative lighting cues (including within the steps of the amphitheater itself) denote different places. It brings a ritualistic character to the opera which is perfectly in tune with King Roger.

This is a wonderfully spare and often extremely moving production, with a mostly superb cast offering both dramatic and musical excellence. Scott Hendricks’ commanding baritone as King Roger anchors the opera in appropriate gravitas and spiritual questioning. Roger’s wife Roxana is handled quite capably by soprano Olga Pasichnyk, who is able to stride Szymanowski’s often huge intervallic leaps with ease. Will Hartmann’s soaring tenor as the Shepherd is febrile and ecstatic...The rest of the ensemble, as well as the sterling work of the Vienna Symphony under the direction of Sir Mark Eder, makes the most of Szymanowski’s often striking writing, which, in its brass flourishes and massed discordant moments prefigures people like Edgard Varèse and even Roger Sessions.

For some reason King Roger, despite its monumental stature among cognoscenti and musicologists, has failed to establish itself as part of the repertory of frequently performed operas. That seems especially strange nowadays with the opera’s emphasis on the meaning of religious faith and the “knowability” of the Divine. This is a passionate piece amply depicting the perhaps unanswerable questing of the spirit, and it deserves to be better known and more appreciated. Hopefully this new Blu-ray will help aid in that effort.

King Roger looks mostly stunning on this new Blu-ray, with a sharp and very colorful AVC encoded image in 1080i and a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This extremely striking physical production takes place almost entirely on a set of amphitheater stairs, which over the course of the opera are imbued with a variety of really interesting lighting effects. Blues and reds pop off the screen with excellent vibrancy. Unfortunately due to some very dark stage lighting, things just approaching blooming a time or two, without ever actually tipping over into bleed-through. Contrast is generally excellent, though again at times during the darker sequences, I wish there had been just a tad more differentiation between lights and darks. On the whole, though, this is a very crisp and sharp looking Blu-ray, which excels in the close-ups, where the Shepherd’s gold-gilt skin coloring sparkles enticingly. The final scene, which is blood drenched in an orgy of ritual sacrifice, offers some astoundingly well saturated reds.

Szymanowski’s towering achievement receives both a solid interpretation as well as a robust recording on this Blu-ray, which offers two lossless options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and an LPCM 2.0 stereo fold down. While this is not an overtly directional recording, there is some nice use of surrounds, specifically with regard to Roger’s “muse” Edrisi, whose evocative calls drift in from side channels. The orchestra is nicely placed here, offering excellent separation which help to delineate individual tones in Szymanowski’s often dense orchestration. The choral work of the ensemble also sounds fantastic here, especially in the Act I chorales, which contain some nice ambient hall reverb ably recreating a large church feel. Fidelity is excellent throughout, and for the most part balance is exceptional. There were one or two times when I wished individual singers had been mixed just a little stronger against orchestral masses, but considering the complexity of this piece, there’s really an amazing clarity that shines through the vast bulk of this presentation.

There are no supplements offered on the Blu-ray disc. The insert booklet has a short, though informative, essay.

King Roger is a fascinating and worthwhile enterprise from virtually every standpoint: musically, dramatically and philosophically. This bracing production hopefully will help elevate this underappreciated piece in opera lovers’ conciousnesses, and it comes very highly recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, September 2010

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Wiener Symphoniker in this very well produced, energetic, impressive performance that is one of the best of the titles here.  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.

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