Roger király – fotó: Joseph Marčinský

Two summer opera productions highlight travails of great rulers

Attila, one of Verdi’s early opera scores that focus on heroic figures in history, was presented in the Margit Island Theatre on August 12, the second operatic treat, presented at the Eiffel Art Studios on August 22, was Karol Szymanowsky’s King Roger. This opera was one of hundreds of events included in the 2023 Theatre Olympics. A review by Alexandra Ivanoff.

The Attila offered two debuts: the noted Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea assumed the title role, and on the podium, Hungary’s Martin Rajna, who was just recently appointed as the chief conductor of the Hungarian State Opera.

The King Roger was prepared and produced by the National Theatre Košice (Kassa), starring Polish baritone Michal Partyka in the title role and Croatian soprano Gabriela Hrzenjak as his wife Roxana. Director Anton Korenči and music director Peter Valentovič (with the Orchestra and Chorus of the National Theatre Košice) have created a jewel out of this unusual work, whose challenges are akin to other politically charged scores like Shostakovich’s “The Nose,” or Ligeti’s “La Grand Macabre.”

Both Attila and King Roger give perspective on what great leaders face in their personal and professional lives. Verdi’s operatic treatment (his 9th of 26 opera scores) of Attila’s strategic dilemmas in Europe in the mid-400s was a mix of facts and fiction, and mostly the latter. In this version, Attila is portrayed as a humane warrior, open to acceptance of others’ faiths and customs; also here, he marries the Italian Odabella, whose community accuses her of siding with “the Barbarian.” Its score is Bellini-esque, just around the time when Verdi’s vocal lines began to presage the verismo era.

Szymanowsky’s 1920 vision of the royal hero was a horse of a different color. The troubled King Roger is tormented by his own life’s inner struggles until a mythical man-creature (a Dionysus figure) arrives to stir up society’s social and moral order. Although an actual King Roger II existed in the Roman era, the opera’s time period (especially in Košice’s production) is purposely inexact because it’s heavily influenced by Szymanowsky’s extensive travels in Europe and particularly Sicily, where the ancient region’s mythology came alive for him, inspiring his own personal search for transcendence.

He artfully superimposed an early 20th century musical and dramatic veil over a story that is actually a confrontational composite of Plato, Euripides, and even Nietzsche. This score is complex, surrealistic, often bi-tonal, and is reminiscent of Berg and Korngold, his contemporaries.

Alexandra Ivanoff’s review can be read in its entirety on Papageno.

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