(By CLARE COLVIN)
I FIRST heard Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu sing the role of Alfredo Germont in the Royal Opera’s production of La Traviata five years ago, with fellow Albanian Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valery.
It was an evening that fizzed with excitement and ideal casting in the handsome looks and lyrical tenor voice.
Pirgu returned more recently as a dangerous Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto and is back in a radically different opera from Verdi’s great classics: Karol Szymanowski’s rarely performed Krol Roger (King Roger), in which he takes the pivotal role of the Shepherd.
One of only two operas by Szymanowski, King Roger was premiered in 1926, the Polish composer’s response to the chaos of the First World War and his homeland’s destruction. Set in 12th century Sicily, King Roger’s journey of discovery reflects the human struggle between rational mind and instinctive emotion.
“The Shepherd first appears as seemingly genuine and innocent, even to the people who hate him,” says Pirgu.
“But by the second act the Shepherd, like Iago, is changing everything in the King’s head. Slowly he goes up and up, to become the leader and destroy the King. He is like Mephistopheles.”
The King loses his wife Roxana when she joins the followers of the pagan Shepherd who leads them to a Bacchanalia in the desert.
How exactly the opera ends depends on the concept of Director of Opera Kasper Holten and we shall have to wait for the first night to find out.
The title role is sung by Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and American soprano Georgia Jarman plays Roxana. Music director Antonio Pappano will conduct.
Born in 1981 during the last years of Communist rule in Albania, Pirgu might have become a violinist, as the Commissars selected young Saimir to learn the violin. He discovered his true vocation in his mid-teens when he watched a concert of The Three Tenors on Albanian Television.
“I recorded them on tape from the TV and tried to imitate them. I wanted to be one of those singers.”
Pirgu met Luciano Pavarotti while a music student at the Conservatory in Bolzano, having on the advice of his teacher switched from violin to singing.
He remembers the legendary tenor warmly as a friend as well as a mentor, and kept in touch with him until the last days of Pavarotti’s life.
“Luciano Pavarotti changed my mentality, he changed everything. He taught me how to project the voice, how to master the sound and the colour.
He taught me that people should understand what you are saying, and never to forget the power of the words.”
One of Pirgu’s dreams was realised in 2013 when he sang the role of Alfredo in New York’s Metropolitan Opera La Traviata, sharing the stage with Placido Domingo as Alfredo’s father.
Krol Roger at Royal Opera House from May 1. Tickets: 020 7304 4000/roh.org.uk; £5-£100. Król Roger can be viewed from May 16 on new website Opera Europa Digital Platform, to be launched in May. The production will also be live streamed on the Royal Opera House website roh.org.uk.