OPERA NEWS, January 17, 1998
Król Roger
Stuttgart: Król Roger, 7  November 1997
Karol Szymanowski's 1926 Król Roger hadn't been performed in Germany for about a decade when the Stuttgart State Opera presented it on November 7, providing a major success for both the house and Lothar Zagrosek, its new general music director. Basically derived from Euripides' Bacchae, the opera's Polish libretto, by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz and the composer, centers on the legendary Norman king of twelfth-century Palermo, who as the representative of Christian law and order is challenged by the appearance of a Shepherd, preacher of sensual freedom and self-indulgence, who in the end reveals himself as Dionysus. While the king's wife, Roksana, and his people surrender to the strange god, Roger stays behind but accepts the Dionysian forces within himself and salutes the rising sun with an exultant hymn. Szymanowski's score is a highly intoxicating mixture of Richard Strauss, Schreker and Scriabin, with glimpses backward to Mussorgsky and Byzantine influences and sideways to Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Despite this, it does not come off as eclectic or imitative; rather it is extremely beautiful, sensuous music of narcotic allure.

Zagrosek inspired his forces, including the marvelous Ulrich Eistert-trained choruses, to reveal the work's exotic charms. Sometimes, however, the singers were overwhelmed, so that little of the German text could be understood. Peter Mussbach's staging (with costumes by Florence von Gerkan), which took place in the head of the king, was perhaps too abstract and austere and in the second half too static, but his decors looked ravishing.

Wolfgang Schöne, his incandescent baritone tempered with bronze, sang the title role with majesty, increasingly taking on characteristics of Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach at the Lido of Venice. As the antagonist Shepherd, Sidwill Hartmann, possessor of a penetrating, propulsive though somewhat weepy tenor, proved hardly the charmer to convert one to his preachings of voluptuousness. Once awakened by the Shepherd's spell, Roksana, a woman of sensual languor, pours out luminous soprano melismas, voiced here by Kristine Ciesinski like a chain of glittering jewels. Edrisi, an Arabian sage, was performed by handsome young Jonas Kaufmann, with a lightweight, honeyed tenor. Judging from these first local performances, Król Roger could become a cult opera in Stuttgart.

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