An air of anticipation hung in the air on the opening night of Opera Australia’s King Roger at Melbourne’s State Theatre.
As the opera is so irregularly performed few knew what to expect.
Adding to the mystery was a huge head dominating the stage and the sudden darkening of the State Theatre as Orchestra Victoria began to play.
Audience reaction at the end of the performance suggested the opera was an outstanding success.
Opera Australia’s (OA) production of King Roger is the first in Australia (it premiered in Sydney earlier in the year) and is a co-production with London’s Royal Opera House. It’s rarely seen anywhere except in Poland which is the home of King Roger’s composer, Karol Szymanowski.
Sung in Polish, King Roger is one of those opera’s where a little research is useful to understand the storyline. Furthermore the music from the opera is generally unknown.
Unlike many other operas there’s no fighting, death or great tragedy. The conflict is in the mind of King Roger. The opera tells of a mysterious shepherd who arrives in the court of the King, preaching a seductive message of pleasure. As a result the King must decide to either continue in the way of the Church and reason or give in to the base passions inside us all.
In the first two acts the King’s conflict is played out outside and then inside the head on stage – that is actually his head. In the first act we see the King confront the shepherd in front of the head. Senior church officials and his subjects want the shepherd dead. The only exception is the King’s wife, Roxana. The King changes his mind several times before allowing the shepherd to live. In the second act the head spins around to reveal the inner workings of the King’s thoughts. It is in this scene we discover his inner turmoil through both his words and the sensuous dancing of a dozen faceless, scarred, muscular-torsoed men.
The head (which is brilliantly brought to life by shifting spotlights and subtle videos) disappears in act three. It’s replaced by an ancient ruin, complete with a fire. It is here the King must decide his way forward.
According to the excellent information provided by OA, King Roger reflects the conflicts experienced by Szymanowski. The composer was a member of the elite in a time of the Bolshevik revolution, a gay man in a time where homosexuality was hidden and a European Catholic fascinated with the culture of the East.
Szymanowski spent much time travelling in the Mediterranean and was drawn to the cultures of Sicily and North Africa- places influenced by Greek, Byzantine, Arabic and Roman powers. His fascination is reflected in the story and music.
The opera, which was first performed in 1926, was originally set in 12th century Sicily although this production is loosely set in 1920’s Poland. Each act of the opera has its own musical identity from a choral Byzantine hymn which opens the opera, to Eastern melodies and finally Polish folk music.
While I’m no expert on operatic singing, the cheers from the audience suggested the all Australian cast gave a masterful performance. Cast members included Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Lorina Gore as Roxana and Arthur Espiritu as the Shepherd. The supporting cast, Opera Australia Choir and Dancers and Orchestra Victoria were equally well lauded.
It’s the chance to see some of Australia’s best opera performers in action, very imaginative staging and a rarely performed opera which adds to the appeal of this production of King Roger.
Performances of King Roger are being held at the State Theatre Melbourne on May 23, 25 and 27. Visit the Opera Australia website for tickets and further information.
Jenny Burns attended the opening night of King Roger as a guest of Opera Australia.
*Photo credit: Jeff Busby supplied by Opera Australia
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