Szymanowski’s King Roger in Gdansk

Although it may be regarded as Poland’s greatest contribution to the operatic repertoire, King Roger is not often staged, even in that country. The cool reception given by the audience at the Baltic Opera Gdansk to an outstanding performance may provide some explanation. For an opera-going public given largely a diet of 19th century melodic drama, the late romantic, expressionist musical idiom is novel, perhaps disconcerting. And it may be hard to enter into the spirit of the predominantly eventless content of the drama. The work is, nevertheless, as this performance testified, a masterpiece.

The key to its success lay in the perception that the “action” of the piece takes place in the mind of the King, as, with death approaching, he reviews his life and relationship with his wife Roxana. He summons up an outsider, the shepherd Edrisi, who with his pagan followers, challenges Christian values and seduces Roger into rejecting them. The director Romuald Wicza-Pokojski rightly adopted a static approach, with restrained movement of the soloists and chorus, in gloomy medieval costumes (designer Magdalena Brozda) against a sombre set (designer Hanna Wójcikowska-Szymczak). Even the hypnotic dance evoking sexuality was somewhat reserved. One dreads to imagine what Calixto Bieito would have done with this material, doubtless drawing the connection with the composer’s covert gay identity.

Against this subdued production style, the music emerged with great emotional force. And the undoubted hero of the evening, the young conductor Yaroslav Shemet, heading the Baltic Opera Orchestra, gave a remarkably well paced and structured account of the score, increasing intensity for the climaxes and drawing out the oriental timbres for the paganesque elements. The three main soloists each contributed to the dramatic impact of the score. Leszek Skrla was a Wotan-like world-weary Roger, externalising with near broken tones his anguish, but reaching full-voiced roundness of his bass baritone for the emotional climaxes. To express Roxana’s defiant contempt for her husband’s inertia, Anna Fabrello’s bright soprano cut through the orchestral lavish sounds, but subsequently, as her appreciation of Edrisi and his mystical entreaties mounted, engaged in some gentle pianissimi. Ryszard Minkiewicz was highly impressive as the shepherd, his strong tenor maintaining a mellifluous presence throughout the evening.