Szymanowski: King Roger

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Szymanowski
LABELS: C Major
WORKS: King Roger
PERFORMER: Scott Hendricks, Olga Pasichnyk, John Graham-Hall, Will Hartmann; Children’s Chorus of Musikhauptschule Bregenz; Camerata Silesia; Polish Radio Choir Kraków; Vienna SO/Mark Elder; dir. David Pountney (Austria, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: 702808

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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.

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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