After a rocky twelvemonth at the House, here at last is something to sing about. Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger is something rich and strange – not to say ambiguous and psychologically complex – and Kasper Holten's staging, the first ever at Covent Garden, probes deep below its surface.
King Roger II of Sicily sits secure upon his throne and puts his trust in his confidant Edrisi (Kim Begley) and in a faith that's represented by the Archbishop (Alan Ewing) and Deaconess (Agnes Zwierko). He is troubled when his queen, Roxana, becomes fascinated by a mysterious Shepherd, but soon he too is beguiled and confounds his advisors by refusing to order the handsome stranger's execution.
Beneath this slim narrative lies a Freudian casebook of forbidden passions and repressed desires. That they belong to a king is one thing; that Król Roger could be composed at all in the Poland of 90 years ago, one of Europe's most buttoned up and devoutly Catholic countries, is a near miracle.
Perhaps the most nakedly homoerotic score ever composed for the opera house, Szymanowski's sensuous, sinewy music insinuates its beauty into the listener's own psyche. The clash of Apollonian and Dionysian ideals (the former equating to intellectual order, the latter to unrestrained instincts) is redolent of Britten's Death in Venice, composed 50 years later, and it dominates Holten's concept and Steffen Aarfing's designs.
It's a production that honours the score to a level that lifts the spirits. In front of a four-storey gallery stands an imposing carved head of the King, a symbol both of his authority and his power. But, as powerfully lit by Jon Clark and with some superbly restrained video work from Luke Halls, the giant statue is starting to decay – and when the Shepherd arrives we begin to understand why. Roger is cold towards his wife while she in turn is dangerously susceptible to the visitor's blandishments.
The second act (or perhaps the entire opera) takes place inside Roger's head. Literally so, Numskulls fashion, as the giant statue turns to reveal a brain-level world of books and learning while down below lurks a cesspit of repressed sexuality in the writhing form of ten grimy, near-naked male dancers. The final act, opens, virtuosically, on a heart-stopping mirage before running its inexorable course.
And what a score it is – and how searingly Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera forces deliver it. In one of the great opening nights at Covent Garden everyone gave a red-hot performance, even Mariusz Kwiecień in the gruelling title role despite (so we were told, though we'd never have guessed) suffering from a cold. Singing for once in his native language, the Polish baritone was gripping and emotionally engaged through some Berg-like passages of introspection until the King's – and the opera's – ravishingly clear-hued climax.
In a uniformly idiomatic cast Kwiecień was matched by golden high notes from Georgia Jarman – powerful and intense as Roxana – and by the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, also in excellent voice, clad as though "from the waters of the Ganges" and hypnotic in his delivery of the Shepherd's forceful, accented declamations.
Król Roger runs in repertoire until 19 May, but there are just five more scheduled performances during that time (although from 16 May it can be viewed on the new Opera Europa Digital Platform and on the Royal Opera House's YouTube channel). It's only short – 90 minutes of music, albeit with a superfluous interval – but it overflows with food for thought. Do try and catch it.