I knew my first full day in Edinburgh would be a good one when I was seated for breakfast at the hotel on a table next to a very Anglo Celtic man in a kilt and knee socks conversing confidently with his companion in Japanese. They were talking about “Euston”, “Hokkaido” and the “National Rail.” How exactly one gets from Euston to Hokkaido via the National Rail I couldn’t quite make out, but I’m all in favour of cultural exchange.

Edinburgh castle

After making my way to see Table 23 without falling in a jet-lagged heap, my second event of the day and first event for the Edinburgh International Festival was Krol Roger (King Roger), an Polish opera by Karol Szymanowski.

There isn’t much story to Krol Roger. A Shepherd wanders around seducing people; first the wife of the king, then the king, and then the king dies. The opera is really a Nietzschean anti-morality tale. The king is tempted away from religion by sensual desire, and abandons even that desire in death.

The music was fantastic. It swings from very classical religious chorus music to very modern sections with gypsy and oriental influences. I particularly liked the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka and her performance of the aria in the second act where Roxana pleads for the king to pardon the shepherd.

The production was a bit overstated for my liking. The beginning in particular was a bit odd, with actors filing into a few rows of seats making up the pews of a church prior to a service. The crowd didn’t seem to realise that the performance had started and continued talking for some time. From my seat in the third balcony I could see the conductor crawling stealthily into the orchestra pit to avoid initiating conventional applause.

The production also had plenty of what seems to be an essential ingredient of serious modern opera: the greasy nude actor. Plenty of them were employed to writhe enthusiastically, pose suggestively with the glowing semi-albino shepherd and then tear the reluctant king’s clothes off.

At the second interval I was jotting some thoughts down in my notebook when I was lucky enough to overhear the conversation of a middle-aged group of women seated behind me.

“I understand that Szymanowski is a homosexual, but why does he have to make such a song and dance about it?”

The opera was completed in 1924 so I doubt Szymanowski is still making songs and dances about anything (indeed Wikipedia tells me he died of tuberculosis in 1937). In any case, you would think that opera composers are generally granted a licence to make songs and dances about whatever they like.

Focusing on Szymanowski’s sexual orientation seems to be missing the point. The story is a unique refashioning of Euipides’ The Bacchae and is all about temptation and desire and destruction in a typically mythical sense. Excessive nudity aside, I really enjoyed it.

Krol Roger
Mariinsky Opera Company
Karol Szymonowski

Festival Theatre Edinburgh