Szymanowski - King Roger

ONP Paris Bastille - Thursday June 25 2009

Conductor : Kazushi Ono. Production : Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes : Malgorzata Szczesniak. Video design : Denis Guéguin. Lighting : Felice Ross. King Roger II : Scott Hendricks. Roxana : Margarita de Arellano. Edrisi : Stefan Margita. Shepherd : Eric Cutler. Archbishop : Wojtek Smilek. Abbess : Jadwiga Rappe. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Some people may find Bruckner’s symphonies or Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels all much of a muchness, but if you’re hooked, you’re hooked and can never get too much of the same. A friend of mine described Warlikowski’s latest Bastille production as “very lazy recycling” and for all I know what seems clever about it may only be pseudo-intellectual. Maybe the king is in the altogether, in both senses; maybe I’m just a sucker for superficial gloss. But to me this was another momentous evening’s theatre.

It isn’t even as if I “got” everything. I still haven’t worked out why a strikingly handsome young man in boxer shorts was injected at the start, making the king vomit, and dragged off; and why, at the end of the work, Roger took his place, in the same white shorts, to be injected in turn by Edrisi (though I have ideas). Or why there was a second Roxana floating dead in the tanks in front of the swimming pool throughout. Nor, never having taken any interest in cinema, was I able to pick up references others tell me were to Warhol/Morrissey films or Pasolini’s Theorem. But with Warlikoswki you expect layers and you expect to be puzzled, and I was satisfied enough to suppose that his staging (a) was in part – though by no means only - about a homosexual awakening and (b) took a sardonic swipe at various illusory utopias: religion, drugs, today’s obsession with physical beauty and staving off old age, Disney…

Visually it was at times magnificent. The single set was simple enough: a gymnasium-like space with wall-bars against walls that changed colour with the lighting, and dark, polished parquet. At the rear, a fairground-type archway with a neon sunburst and the word “sun” picked out in lights, waiting for the finale scene. The parquet could slide open, slowly broadening the space, and closed over a blue swimming pool. Act 1 was especially lavish, with the court men in dinner suits and the ladies marvellous, made-up harridans in various shades of gold lame and big, Mrs Thatcher wigs (my neighbour, not being British, thought of Nancy Reagan instead). They were filmed in real time by a hand-held camera: grotesque close-ups of their snarling features were projected on a giant gauze as the action took place behind and in front of it.

At the start, the King and Roxana were in their underwear, getting dressed – possibly after sex - for the ceremony. The shepherd was a sort of camp hippy with Michael Jackson hair and red-varnished fingernails (but had handsome doubles in white imitating his every move among the crowd). The bacchanalia was choreographed as an aquatic gym session for the very old. And what got some people’s goat was that, at the end, the shepherd emerged, like Michael Jackson (whose demise we were to hear of the next morning) with a gang of children in Mickey Mouse heads and little black velvet suits; he too had a mouse-head (which muffled his singing rather) and big, spangled Minnie Mouse shoes. As my annoyed friend put it this was “the extravagant tangent [Warlikowski] went off on, a sort of didactic exposure of the Shepherd’s worthless philosophy as no more than a lead-in to US commercial values.” Yes, I get the point. But it was so well acted and lit and sung… and as one critic put it, you may not understand everything, it may not all make sense, but Warlikowski has a gift, even so, for creating a complex, uneasy atmosphere that somehow works. At any rate, it works for me.

Unless I’m mistaken, I didn’t hear Krol Roger in concert at the Châtelet some years back, so this was my first encounter with the sumptuous score. I realise it’s always dangerous, when hearing pieces for the first time, to seek comparisons as later, when you know the composer better, he will sound like no-one but himself. But as the shepherd’s part calls for a high and elegiac tenor, I couldn’t help thinking of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with occasional hints of Ravel, Stravinsky’s Firebird, and even (though not enough to ruin the whole evening) Vaughan-Williams.

We had a strong cast of men. Indeed, they all made themselves heard over the row from the pit, and I doubt they could have been better. Eric Cutler soared radiantly through the difficult part, with remarkable ease; Scott Hendricks was a very powerful high baritone; and Stefan Margita was Stefan Margita, which is perfectly fine by me. Unfortunately (this is understudy month in Paris) the scheduled soprano dropped out, sick; her stand-in seemed to be doing a sterling job as far as we could hear, but her efforts, however fruitful they may have been, remained mostly inaudible in the Bastille’s vast spaces. Kazushi Ono also did a great job with the ONP orchestra, who stayed in the pit for the bows at the end, a sign they got on with the conductor for once.

If this comes out on video (the TV production was, after all, by Bel Air) then we’ll get Mariusz Kwiecien and Olga Pasichnyk, so all will be well and, having had a preview on Internet, I’ll buy it, for sure. “Eurotrash”-haters, however, should steer clear.


  1. AnonymousJuly 28, 2009

    I fully agree with Steve that "Warlikowski has a gift ... for creating a complex, uneasy atmosphere that somehow works".
    What a mesmerizing production, seldom seen anything that approaches it in terms of dramatic impact and atmosphere. And that is only judging by the video transmission available on arte with Mariusz Kwiecien rather than Hendricks:
    Take a look while you can, they will take it off probably sometime in August (maybe the 20th).
    Probably quite a different experience to viewing it live in the Bastille, where you will generally need binoculars. The video demonstrates how Warlikowski gets the singers to act - if you have seen Eric Cutler and Mariusz Kwiecien strut around the stage in traditional productions of Bel Canto operas, you can sure see the difference here.

  2. AnonymousJuly 28, 2009

    In the first line, I meant Nigel of course, sorry.


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