Fantastic Recording of Szymanowski’s “Krol Roger”

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SZYMANOWSKI: Krol Roger / Wojtek Drabowicz, bar (Roger II, King of Sicily); Olga Pasichnyk, sop (Queen Roxana); Piotr Beczala, ten (Shepherd); Krzystof Szmyt, ten (Arabian sage); Romuald Tesarowicz, bass (Archbishop); Stefania Toczyska, mezzo (Deaconess); “Alla Polacca” Youth Choir; Chorus & Orchestra of Polish National Opera, Warsaw; Jacek Kaspszyk, cond / CD Accord ACD 131-2

Karol Szymanowski’s Krol Roger (King Roger), written over six years and premiering in 1924, is surely an opera for our time. With all of the rabid fanaticism one sees in radical Islam, the hateful Iranian mullahs and rabid conservative Christians worldwide, one wonders more than ever before why people living in the 21at century continue to believe in outdated and scientifically false belief systems regarding the creation of our world and the supposed spiritual animus of the humans living here.

As a child, Szymanowski was lured and fascinated by the religious music of the Orthodox Church without being a member or a believer, thus he wanted to write an opera dealing with the mesmeric trappings of religion. Rather than insult any specific religion, however, he created an allegorical tale of a King and Queen whose lives intersected with a strange form of supernatural beliefs. King Roger is told by his court advisors of a strange shepherd who is being followed by hundreds of people and warn him to banish this shepherd from his kingdom, but his queen, Roxana, begs him to invite the shepherd to court and question him. Despite his humble clothing and staff, when the shepherd arrives at court he has the bearing and demeanor of a royal figure, telling Roger and Roxana that he represents a religion of peace, love and sensuality. Roger is skeptical, but Roxana is intrigued. When the shepherd next comes to court he is dressed in splendid raiments, accompanied by a group of followers bearing strange musical instruments. As they play, Roxana falls for the shepherd and his message of love hook, line and sinker. Eventually the shepherd reveals himself as the god Dionysus and leads Roxana far away with him. Roger, however, is able to stay grounded in reality and resist his siren call, realizing that he was able to observe and hear what was going on around him without being sucked into Dionysus’ orbit.

The music that Szymanowski wrote for this opera is not only sensuous but some of his most powerful; indeed, the score almost sounds like one of his symphonies, only set to words. There are four principal roles, Roger (baritone), Roxana (soprano), the shepherd (tenor) and an Arabian sage who is one of Roger’s advisors (tenor). Only the last-named features a weak singer in this cast, which is otherwise surprisingly strong. Even the smaller roles are well cast here, the Archbishop sung by the splendid Polish bass Romuald Tesarowicz and the Deaconess performed by the famed Polish mezzo, Stefania Toczyska.

Several years ago, when I was still writing for Fanfare, I reviewed a Naxos recording of this opera. Having never heard it before, I was knocked out by the quality and power of the music but had reservations about the singing. At the time, however, I did not have access to this recording, which was made much earlier (2001). Having heard it now, I can’t even consider the Naxos recording much competition. With the sole exception of the second tenor, everyone here is absolutely first-rate in all respects, voice, diction and interpretation. I was especially impressed by the young Piotr Beczala, who in pursuing an international career pushed his beautiful voice out of shape, forcing to sing larger roles than he was suited for and yelling out high Cs and the like. He should have stayed within the lyric sphere; his shepherd is not only meticulously sung but shows a pliant lyric instrument that may, alas, be gone forever now.

Pasichnyk, whose name I’ve seen before, had an absolutely gorgeous soprano voice, creamy and bright at the same time. She is perfect for Roxana, whose tessitura lies very high to begin with and whose rapturous, hypnotic lines when under the spell of the shepherd are rendered with perfect breath control and a gorgeous tone. Baritone Drabowicz, as Roger, has a bit of a hefty sound with a dark timbre, but the voice is steady and manly-sounding without becoming hard or spreading under pressure, as his countryman Mariusz Kwecien’s voice always seems to do. He is thus a dominating figure as the King, able to modulate his volume and sing sensitively when called for but also to sound like a regal figure, not one who would be easily dominated by the figure of the shepherd.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the score is how Szymanowski wrote tonal music with actual melodic lines (but no real arias except, perhaps, for Roxana’s solo in Act II) for the singers while maintaining a tonally ambiguous backdrop in the orchestral writing. This mixture holds the listener’s interest even in a sound recording such as this, without visuals to go by.

I’m sure there are several people who will read this review and decide that, for aesthetic or religious reasons, Krol Roger is not for them. That is their loss. The Age of Reason was more than 200 years ago, and, sadly enough, the superstitious backsliding of the world’s population has done nothing positive to advance humankind.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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