(NB: contains spoilers. If you haven't seen the ROH Król Roger yet, and you're going to, and you don't want to know what they do with it, look away now and come back afterwards...)
There's a live streaming tonight of Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger (King Roger) from the Royal Opera House. Highly recommended. A gift of an excuse to do this opera has appeared - namely the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, of big, oak-dark tone and native ability with the language - and in Tony Pappano's hands the score doesn't only seduce, but blisters and burns. I went in last week (reviewing for The JC) expecting honey and rosewater, but found neat chilli vodka instead. You can see the streaming on the brand-new Opera Europa platform - 15 of Europe's leading opera houses clubbing together to stream productions free to all - or on the ROH's own Youtube channel. It will be available on demand for 6 months afterwards.
Kasper Holten's production is, first, clever, and second, clear. The score and the action - inspired by Euripides, but written by the composer's cousin and travelling companion, the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz - are sensual and heady for a good reason; the composer's inner conflicts, as a gay Catholic in the early 20th century, are given full rein to express themselves, as is the musical lure of the exotic near east and north Africa, where matters at the time were less repressive. Holten takes us inside the King's head, and I don't mean that Islington pub.
The first act finds the stage dominated by a giant head. In act two, the face turns to the back and we see its inner workings: three levels, connected by iron staircases. The superego at the top, somewhat underpopulated; the ego, strewn with piles of old books; the id, beneath, a mass of seething, writhing dancers, hemmed in, struggling to get out. In act III the question arises: what happens when they do? And who are they? And who, then, is the Shepherd?
Szymanowski's shepherd - sung here by the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, with a range of expression that carries him from rose velvet in the centre to knife-edge iron at the top when the drama demands - is (like Korngold's Stranger from Heliane, oddly enough premiered a year later) a newcomer in a repressed, traditional world. He arrives preaching love and hedonism; the Queen is enchanted by him; the King is filled with conflict, his adviser Edrisi warning him to be cautious and the church powers encouraging the stamping out of this unorthodox approach to life. Roger tries to condemn the stranger to death; Queen Roxana begs him not to.
Sometimes subverting an opera's intrinsic story is a mistake, on those occasions when you feel the solution is imposed on questions that were never there in the first place. But this is different. This is one of those lightbulb moments that you didn't necessarily see coming up, but that makes complete sense - and makes the production as vital an experience as the opera is in the first place.
I haven't written anything about the general election here because I simply don't know what to say other than "well, I didn't vote for them...". (Our local MP is a popular, independent-minded Tory, Zac Goldsmith, a vocal opponent to Heathrow expansion. Nobody else stood a chance round here.) I like the idea of the "northern powerhouse" and especially of faster trains thereto. But I dread the deepening of the already insane inequalities in our society; I dread what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country; and I fear an EU referendum that may leave us an isolated, powerless island on fantasy-fangled ideological grounds, even though the country's business leaders think we would be stark raving bonkers to take such a course. And I don't like to think what will happen to the arts. Last time round, a number of small companies and organisation either went under or had to find radical ways to reinvent themselves. This time, I think that may well start happening to bigger ones. And the BBC is going to face a huge upheaval next year when the licence fee arrangement is due for renewal or revision.
What's this got to do with King Roger (apart from another King Roger having abdicated from the Proms while the going was good)? This: it shows us what we don't have - specifically, a charismatic leader whose personal magnetism and honeyed promises can lead huge swathes of the population to follow him into dangerous paths. And if we don't have this, says the production, perhaps it's just as well. It's possible that one, of sorts, may emerge in due course - and it may not be who you think - but maybe we should count our blessings that no Szymanowskian shepherd of any one of those many political hues has yet walked through the gates of Westminster.