Tuesday 23 May 2017

Review: King Roger Opera, Melbourne

Having a happy life is all about balance, it seems. But that’s not as easy to achieve as it sounds, especially when it comes to balancing intellectual impulses against carnal, pleasure against self-control.

That’s the issue at the core of King Roger, a Polish opera from 1926 (Król Roger its original Polish title).

Its composer, Karol Szymanowski, knew well the tensions caused by extremes: as an aristocrat in an age of revolution, and a gay man in a time of sexual repression, he lived the conflict that’s played out on the State Theatre’s set.

And what a set. For the first two acts, the stage is dominated by a huge model of a head, perhaps representing the human mind that’s about to be subjected to psychological turmoil.

For into the rationally-ruled kingdom of King Roger comes a shepherd who is also a holy man, preaching a new doctrine of free love and sensuality, prioritising the pleasures of the body over the stimulations of the mind.

I couldn’t help but be reminded here by Rasputin, that contemporary of the composer who bewitched the Russian royal family and helped bring about their downfall.

The king is torn, condemning the preacher at the same time he is swayed by his all-too-human lust, represented on stage by athletic, writhing near-naked men performing an erotically charged dance on the lower levels of the head’s multi-storey interior. It’s a salacious nod perhaps to Szymanowski’s own conflicted sexuality.

It all ends in tears, of course. By the start of Act III the preacher has seized power, the head has been burnt to the ground, and Roger has been cast out without his beloved queen.

The revolution of pleasure is out of control, books are being burnt, and it’s only by baring his soul to the rising sun that the deposed king is able to seek redemption.

The Opera Australia performers do a fine job in what must have been a difficult production to master. I speak some Polish and I find it difficult enough to pronounce it correctly in everyday speech, let alone in song.

The set, with its giant head and symmetrical galleries, is a clever way to portray a psychological struggle in physical form, and the 1920s-era costumes are simple but effective.

As for the story, I suspect we all feel a little like Szymanowski in these difficult times – as if it’s easy to give in to excess, and balance is near-impossible to achieve.

King Roger continues at Arts Centre Melbourne until 27 May 2017. Click here for more info or to make bookings. [Credit: photos provided by Opera Australia, taken by Jeff Busby.]

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