Sunday, May 21, 2017

Opera Australia's psychologically commanding and seductive King Roger: Herald Sun Review
Published online at Herald Sun 22nd May and in print 23rd May

IT’S not often an opera comes along that sidesteps sentimental and emotional foci and zeros in on the psychological so seductively and commandingly, but Polish composer Karol Syzmanowski’s explorative and concise work King Roger achieves just that.

If you’re unfamiliar with it you’re not alone but, once seen, it will brand its combination of penetrating music and story of wrestled desire and personal torment well beyond the final curtain.

Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Lorina Gore as Roxana
In Opera Australia’s new production — co-produced with London’s Royal Opera directed by Kasper Holten (revival director Matthew Barclay) — Syzmanowski’s titular figure is revealed in stone as a monumental towering head centred within a lofty coliseum as symbol of the king’s power and subject of public scrutiny. Tensions boil as a people conditioned by draconian religious strictures demand blood when the mysterious Shepherd arrives preaching freedom of Dionysian pleasures causing Roger’s fight between resistance and desire.

Holten extrapolates the text with such striking clarity, underpinning the composer’s own infused sexual identity, and creates a vision so enduring with Steffen Aafing’s sets and costumes and Jon Clark’s joyless lighting, that it’s hard to imagine its original 12th century Sicilian setting giving it the substance Holten does — an austere place costumed in a time alluding to Syzmanowski’s 1920s Northern Europe.

The head revolves for Act 2 to reveal an industrial-like network of stairs. Holten literally takes us into Roger’s mind and we’re churned about in his psychological turmoil of desire, entangled in the sexual urges of near-naked writhing dancers in a homoerotic dream/reality.

Act 3 is more ambiguous. The head is gone, Roger’s wife, Roxana, has joined the Shepherd’s mass of followers and books are burned in revolt. Consumed by the Shepherd’s spell, Roger has a cryptic epiphany in a finale that questions what it is but, potently, how we manage desire within context.

Dominica Matthews, Arthur Espiritu, Gennadi Dubinsky and OA Chorus
Exotic Middle-Eastern threads, impressionist lucidity and tearing expressionist strokes flourish from Syzmanowski’s adventuresome mind in a score of luscious beauty. Orchestra Victoria’s adroitness and conductor Andrea Molino’s resolute understanding of the music on opening night showed despite the weight occasionally bearing on lower vocal reaches.

Steadfast baritone Michael Honeyman’s robustly buttressed performance and solid grasp of Roger’s taunted psyche and situational tug of war was luminous. Liquid-warm tenor Arthur Espiritu coolly captivated as the enigmatic Shepherd. The gentle outstretched reaches between the two, the Shepherd’s suggestive brush of the stone head’s lips and Roger’s beguiled looks all add depth to Holten’s well-conceived details.

Radiant soprano Lorina Gore exuded crystalline elegance as Roger’s overlooked and unfulfilled wife, Roxana. James Egglestone’s genial adviser to Roger, Edrisi, Dominica Matthews’ unbending Deaconess and Gennadi Dubinsky’s lordly Archiereios handsomely satisfied in smaller roles and Opera Australia Chorus rang out superbly with combined solemnity and agitation.

King Roger is as profoundly compelling as it is mysteriously beautiful and it’s exactly the type of work that adds power and piquancy to Opera Australia’s stage.


Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until May 27

Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

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