REVIEW: King Roger at the Sydney Opera House

Joan Sutherland Theatre
Sydney Opera House
Opera Australia

Friday, January 20, 2017.

The opening night performance offered a plethora of auteur statements – many synergizing with the text in obvious and effective ways – from the prominence of the head space design underscoring the psychological angst of Roger to the extension of ocular imagery and natural landscape that abounds in the libretto. Other statements tended toward disruption of the essential narrative of the text (such as the book burning that is inherently iconic of Nazism in a piece that seemed little interested otherwise in that particular brand of discourse) or a writhing chorus of nude man who were at once acrobatic and acerbic in stealing the attention from the principals as they attempted to project a text that is so redolent with imagery that the attempt at homoerotic subtext came off a little ham-fisted until the second half (the third act) in which they took up the role of a seeming knot of muscle spasms, exhausted and discarded at the side of the stage (perhaps by a director who had run out of a decent excuse for them). Consequently, their pivotal bashing of Roger in the penultimate moments of the opera, which segues into a rebirth of the titular character seemed to tread a line between projecting Roger as a self-loathing closet-case or, if we take up the thread of their Act 1 performance, perhaps he was a man who was being shaken down by his own demons or neurologically assaulted by some internal wave of brain failure. The point is that the point was rather lost in the final assault – uncertain as we might be of the point of all this nude broiling about the stage while literally underscoring the performing of the story’s tale by the singers themselves. Could it have been done without the dancers – almost certainly – particularly with the beautifully executed use of projections in the opening act (something that also faded away as the score moved forward).

Opera Australia
King Roger

The production shows some signs of under-rehearsing on the stage – with the children’s chorus looking somewhat wayward as they attempted to navigate their way through the stage right wing-space into which the set projected and fought with the all-too-well-known backstage restrictions of the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Their shining singing was a delight, even if at times the treble parts were less assured than they might have been. They were exceeded by the sound of the chorus who were permitted to sing in something approximating their full-voice for once, with little to indicate they were underpowered (as sometimes seems the case these days at Opera Australia).

The 1926 score presented a beautiful collection of moments, interspersed with the atonal or arrhythmic rambles typical of this period of composition. You can’t help but hear in the score a little harmonic and rhythmic presaging of the catastrophe that was to envelop Europe in the coming decades (and perhaps that is a validation of the book burning scene which otherwise seems a stretch). The orchestra had some moments to indulge the atmosphere of the score though a more reverberant acoustic (like that of a church) seems more in keeping with the spiritual aspirations of the score, than the dryness of the theatre they are forced to perform in. Conductor Molino was assured in his role as interpreter of a “modern” score and it would be lovely to hear him head up productions of post 1920s repertoire going forward.

Szymanowski called his work a “misterium” – fitting of a piece that describes the almost dream-like arc of the passage of one night (though in this production, it seems that time was more ephemerally paced and referenced). The transition of the sensitive ruler (through the invocation of Dionysus) to an Apollo figure doesn’t preclude the auteur emphasizing of certain elements of the narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily sell us on them. The experience commences with a religious statement of both sincerity and orientalist moodiness which seems to not connect meaningfully with what follows. By the end of the opening moments of the opera, as we revolve to the inside of Roger’s head, we are still uncertain if he is the fascist that the set design suggests, or a man of conscience whose enlightenment we shall root for.

As a result, it is hard to like any of the central characters. Salmir Pirgu as the enigmatic Shepherd who calls upon Roger to take up the path to transformation, has the bearing of an arrogant teenager who has discovered the ability to comment on Facebook and thereby considers his “publications” definitive. He sang beautifully, however, exposing the potentially unpleasant tessitura of his part with clarity and some deft phrasing, though some of the dynamic arc of his work could have given us more contrast. Lorina Gore, taking the role of Roxana, played her part with aplomb, not an easy thing in a score that is more consistently directed at the sub-soprano vocal range – she avoided sounding out-of-context and added a needed relief from the tonal colours of the evening as a whole. Her second-act (before the interval in this production) aria was beautifully sang, even if it was blocked in a manner that deprived her of an earnestness and naturalness of movement that would have complimented who plea to Roger.

A special mention must go to Domenica Matthews who stamped her vocal and theatrical authority (with heightened gesticulation matching her vocal cruelty and tonal menace) on a role that rather vanished all too quickly (a fault in the libretto and not the performance). Her singing in the opening scene was magnificently deployed in both projection, colour and paranoia. They were stirring moments from her.

Opera Australia
The Homo-erotic/self-loathing/neurologial/psychological/?? “presence” of the dancing boys.

But it was Michael Honeyman who had to propel the drama from an opening that has his back to the audience and it is not clear who is who to an end where he appears sans shirt and reborn from a self-imposed gay-bashing or resurrected from some sort of neurotic break. His singing was assured, projected very well and gave moments of true power. He showed himself worthy of greater roles than he has had in the past in the standard repertoire and his acting was earnest and blessedly restrained, notwithstanding the often disconcerting writhing of bodies he had to plough through. His transformation scene bought the opera to a close that was startling because he presented it without the histrionic that might have telegraphed that the end is nigh, and delivered us gently and with deft precision to the final musical statements of the score.

King Roger is an interesting, if not great opera and it is a delight to be able to watch something at the Opera House that isn’t La Boheme again. In a less assured directorial hand, it may have come across as totally self-indulgent. Yet, in a more assured hand, the production may have achieved a good deal more, with a great deal less. Perhaps that is the root cause of the ambivalence that the production as a whole seems to conjure in its audience.

With this production, Opera Australia gave us an indication of what could be, but unfortunately is not. It is not a company for eclectic artistic experimentation which fails, wins or challenges – mostly. But it could be and it is hard to imagine that opera would not engage more audience if it weren’t a little more Netflix and a little less Free-to-Air in its programming.

A.K.

Pictures from Opera Australia Media Centre.