Regal king size - Król Roger

This article is from 2008.

Król Roger

Fitting neatly into the EIF’s theme of Artists Without Borders, the majestic Król Roger opens up audiences to an innovative collaboration. Carol Main chats to Festival director Jonathan Mills about the opera’s arrival in the city.

Listening to a recording of Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger, it is perplexing to understand why this powerful score has been so neglected outside Poland. The music is dramatic, lyrical and, even without the aid of translation, never mind staging, the score is immediately engaging. Sweeping swathes of deeply felt emotion, religious belief and passion colour the smouldering pot of cultural collision that was 12th century Sicily, Szymanowski’s potent setting for his 20th century masterpiece. Nicola Benedetti did Szymanowski great service in bringing his Violin Concerto No 1 to wide public attention as she shot to fame as Young Musician of the Year four years ago and the Edinburgh International Festival is now set to do similarly with the same composer’s opera, Król Roger (King Roger).

That the performance is happening with Valery Gergiev conducting his Mariinsky Opera from St Petersburg is something of a coup for the Festival. ‘Why I’m so excited about this collaboration,’ says EIF director Jonathan Mills, ‘is that it’s fantastic to work with champions like Valery Gergiev, and to have a Russian conductor and company give what will be the opera’s Polish language stage premiere in the UK.’ The pairing of opera and conductor is an idea which has been simmering in Mills’ mind for some time, long before he left his previous Australian post to come to Edinburgh. ‘I thought about it when Gergiev was in Melbourne in 2001, and wanted to discover what else this great musical personality can reveal.’

At two hours, and covering three acts, the opera is not especially long and tells of a beautiful shepherd granted an audience with King Roger and his Queen, Roxana, who urges her husband to allow the shepherd to tell the court about the great deeds of his god. He’s accused of blasphemy against the Catholic Church, but intoxicates Roxana with his charismatic claims and spirits her away to reveal himself as Dionysus, Greek god of wine, nature and fertility. Only King Roger can resist him.

Although the piece was performed at the 1998 BBC Proms with Simon Rattle (who is one of the composer’s main ambassadors outside Poland), it was not fully staged. For Mills, the partnership between Russia and Poland is also symbolic of his 2008 Festival’s main themes: Artists Without Borders. ‘We are breaking down borders in such a way so that we can relate to other people’s cultures.’

Polish culture, reckons Mills, is one that has historically kept itself to itself. ‘There is a feeling that if the great and the good of Poland had done the same as the Czech authorities, and brought people like Sir Charles Mackerras to the country on a regular basis, then things would have been different.’ Mackerras introduced Janá_ek to an international audience and, says Mills, ‘if that had happened for Szymanowski in a similar way, we may not have been having this conversation.’

The director of Król Roger is film, opera and theatre director Mariusz Trelínski, whose staging is, by all accounts, hugely impressive. ‘It is a very contemporary setting,’ says Mills, ‘and he is doing that to make a clear statement about the music, challenges and aspirations of 20th century culture. It should be seen and understood in that milieu rather than anachronistically in the 12th century.’

The production was first seen in 2000, when it earned Trelínski the Karol Szymanowski Award, and then revived last year to open the National Opera season in Warsaw in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Szymanowski’s birth. ‘There is incredible symbolism within the piece,’ says Mills, ‘and Mariusz uses symbolic imagery within the Polish language, which means that the way we perceive the piece in the UK will be very different from in Poland.’ For Mills, it is vital that the Edinburgh International Festival programmes this sort of experience for its audiences. ‘We are not a subscription series, and I’m not doing La traviata or La bohème, however crazy their productions might be. We want innovative productions anyway, but we also want to look at the parts of the repertoire that are really important and overlooked. In my judgement, this piece is one of them.’

Król Roger, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 25, 27 Aug, 7.15pm, £14-£64.

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