The Sydney Festival  has introduced audiences to new, unique and unconventional theatrical experiences. In this spirit Opera Australia has staged a ‘new’ and never before performed in Australia opera, KING ROGER by Karol Szymanowski. When I say new Krol Roger ,as it is known in Polish, was first performed in Warsaw in 1926. The composer himself died in 1937.

Before I deal with the opera itself I feel that I should introduce the composer. Szymanowski was the son of a wealthy landowner in Poland which was then part of the Russian empire. His privileged status allowed him to travel widely from the United States to Vienna but his spiritual home was pre World War 1 Sicily. There was a large gay scene in Sicily at that time where Szymanowski was able to mix with such gay luminaries as Oscar Wilde.

It was also in Sicily that he discovered King Roger 11, a Norman King who ruled Sicily in the 12th Century. Being at the crossroads between Byzantine Christianity in the West and Greek hedonism and Paganism in the East, he imagined the conflicts the conflicts the King had to endure. This gave him the material to compose King Roger which Szymanowski called a Sicilian drama or Misterium, meaning spectacle. This may have hampered its popularity as an opera. However when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 he was rediscovered by the West.

The version which we see in Sydney and eventually Melbourne is a co-production with the Royal and Dallas Opera Companies and directed by Kasper Holten. In one of the most striking sets that I have ever seen, the first two Acts are dominated by a gigantic head. We are left in no doubt that this will be a psychodrama.

What I find especially compelling about this opera is that it can be interpreted on so many levels, especially due to the confluence of influences that Szymanowski was exposed to. One can see Sigmund Freud’s conflict between the ego and the id, the struggles Byzantine christianity had with works such as Euripides, The Bacchae, the inner conflict he, like many artists, endured, between his homosexuality and concealing it in less tolerant societies so as to remain acceptable. And of-course there is the direct experience he endured when, at first, seeing the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution through ideologically romantic eyes to the scales falling from them when his family’s estate was seized and his treasured grand piano thrown into the lake by the Bolshevik in the early 1920s. Over the six years Szymanowski laboured on this opera, the latter experiences forced him to revise the final Act.

Act 1 starts spectacularly with the giant head with moving projections on its  surface to reflect King Roger’s public face. The Australian opera chorus perform from windows of a Colosseum arcing behind a giant bust. Gennadi Dubinsky and Dominica Matthews as the Archbishop and Deaconess whose lower registers bring a grim authority to their roles as prosecutors who have found a shepherd preaching hedonism. Both the religious leaders and the Chorus demand the death penalty for the shepherd with  melodies infused with Byzantine Christian choruses with Arabic refrains. James Egglestone as the King’s trusted advisor Edrisi is the voice of moderation counselling with the support of Rogerś wife Roxana to bring the shepherd before the people to plead his case. The Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, whose thrilling tenor not only seduces the masses but also his new Sydney audience.

Act 2 sees the giant head revolved to symbolise the inner workings of Roger’s multi-storied mind. Sinewy, muscular dances, choreographed strikingly by Cathy Marston, ride below waiting to ensnare Roger to follow the shepherd. Roxana, Roger’s wife, played by Lorina Gore, whose burnished soprano pleads with Roger, played by Michael Honeyman, to follow her and join the Shepherd. The wraiths then descend to Roger and try and ensnare him and throw his books to the ground but Roger resists.

Act 3 sess Roger on trial after he ventures out and the book throwing becomes book burning as the chorus has now turned to the Shepherd/Prophet who has wrought nothing but destruction Roger is attacked by the crowd but Roxana yields to his pleas and comforts him. As the dawn breaks Roger feels the future is hopeful as he has rejected the Shepherd totally who now regards himself as a God.

In the original Act 3 Roger follows the Shepherd but with the events in europe and in particular Russia, provoke a different ending.

Michael Honeyman as Roger has a glorious baritone which ranges seemingly effortlessly from authority, inner conflict, to yearning and finally resignation.

Egglestone’s warm tenor perfectly complements Michael Honeyman’s baritone.

The score is a combination of seemingly incongruous melodies from Gregorian like chants, Eastern melodies, and dare I say it modern movie theme music. These are all beautifully harnessed by conductor Andrea Molino who does so without a musical score.

Director Kasper Holten has achieved the seemingly impossible by making opera lovers totally engrossed in the inner workings of a mind rather than the usual infidelity/betrayal and death motifs.

To add to the vividness of this spectacle, credit must also go to the lighting designer Jon Clark and the dazzling set  by Steffen Aarfing enhanced by the magnificent sound that it the Australian Opera chorus.

The efforts of the director and his team, the designers, and the soloists, have magnificently  rescued this operatic jewel and raised it to an operatic triumph. It should not have taken 90 years for Australian audiences to encounter Karol Szymanowski and his Roger. I have no doubt that this majestic production will be heard again in the future with greater frequency. This brave and potentially risky staging has become a masterstroke for Opera Australia. King Roger rules again.

The opera is sung in Polish with English surtitles. Running time 2 hours with one interval.

The remaining performances of KING ROGER are  on Wednesday 8th and 15th February at 7.30 pm and Saturday 11th February at 1 pm.