Karol Szymanowski’s opera King Roger has had a lot of buzz lately. The outrageous 2009 production at the Opéra National de Paris, with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, has had a lot of traffic on YouTube, what with all of the nudity, overt sexuality and injections of drugs. Thus, when the same Mariusz Kwiecien took the stage at Santa Fe Opera on Friday to sing the title role, with the unpredictable director Stephen Wadsworth in charge, the last thing you expected was a relatively conservative production. Imagine our surprise when that is what we got, Kwiecien’s shirtless finale and mild foray into a similarly clad male bacchanal notwithstanding.
The story is representational, as was popular in 1926 when the opera was written. For example, Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist plays were more about what was hidden in the text that what was actually said. His Pelléas et Mélisande inspired numerous composers and its influence, and the movement it inspired, is felt in King Roger.
On the surface, it is about the responsibilities of a king and the temptation to chuck it all and live a life, out of the limelight, of sexual freedom. Since Szymanowski was gay in an era when that was definitely not acceptable, King Roger represented the composer himself.
Here, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward dresses him in a modern suit in the midst of more a Medieval array. In the opera, a mysterious and mesmerizingly beautiful shepherd appears in the king’s domain and encourages a “if it feels good do it” philosophy. Of course, the church has a fit and demands his death. Roger gives him a hearing and finds himself in the aforementioned conundrum.
Wadsworth starts off slowly, with the chorus and various prelates entering, for what seems like hours, in absolute silence. When the music finally starts, with little more than a gong, it is hard to re-engage. However, from the moment Kwiecien enters as King Roger, Wadsworth keeps him in the center of the action. His virile baritone and commanding physical presence keeps the audience laser-focused on his every gesture. His temporary abandonment to the world of physical pleasures near the end of the opera, while much more tame than in Paris, is complete. His ode to the sun, transcendent; his regretful return to the tightly structured life he must lead as king, regretful. But he is changed and so are we.
As the Shepherd, tenor William Burden is vocally wonderful but miscast as the pansexual object of desire. Hould-Ward doesn’t help by giving him some clunky buckskin in the beginning and what looks like a Halloween satyr costume at the end. While Wadsworth gives him lots of physical contact with both Roger, his wife, Roxana, and the villagers, his lack of a sexual aura makes it seem more brotherly than seductive and not enough to make it worth discarding a kingdom for a moment of ecstasy.
Erin Morley makes a beautiful and coolly distracted Roxana. She wanders around the stage as if lost in her own fantasy world. She modulates her clear soprano so that it is just as cold as her demeanor, only opening up in the beautiful Act 2 aria. There is little wonder why her Roxana falls so hard for the erotic shepherd and why Roger is also tempted by the same sexual energy.
The other characters are equally strong. Tenor Dennis Petersen as Edrisi is a stalwart best friend and confidant to the conflicted king. Bass Raymond Aceto, who made a dignified Sarastro in the Dallas Opera’s Magic Flute and a suavely evil Scarpia in Santa Fe’s Tosca, is impressive as the Archbishop; and mezzo-soprano Laura Wilde is also wonderful as the Deaconess.
Peggy Hickey’s choreography is fairly tame stuff for a depiction of sexual abandon. Thomas Lynch’s sets are minimal, but effective. The large golden icon in the first act dominates the stage, just as the church dominates the world being depicted. It changes to represent the court and then again as the shepherd offers his Dionysian pied piper’s song. The chorus, as in the other operas in which they have appeared, was impressive.
Szymanowski’s music stands at the tipping point when music had painted itself into a cul-de-sac of chromatic complexity and Schoenberg’s complete destruction of the tonal system appeared to be a lifeline. Szymanowski never tipped over and King Roger, while unique in its musical language, is reminiscent of late Richard Strauss, early Schoenberg, with a soupçon of Scriabin, a pinch of Debussy and a smattering of the young Messiaen. It is lush and over-the-top romantic with tsunamis of vocal, orchestral and choral sound washing over the listener.
Conductor Evan Rogister stands in the middle of this sonic soup, skillfully commanding the waves and torrents of Szymanowski score. He is able to get an immense sound out of the orchestra yet he never once overwhelms the stage. He is also sensitive to the balance within the orchestra and the composer’s complex writing can be clearly heard. He delivers a notable performance in his house debut, virtually assuring a return visit.
In much smaller ways, we are all faced with King Roger’s dilemma on an almost daily basis. It may be as inconsequential as an extra helping of a gooey cake or as major as running off, leaving family and friends behind, and joining the circus. Maybe just the more common start of an illicit affair – or even just thinking about it. But, we have all been there at one time or another.
Here's a video from the Opera National de Paris' production of King Roger in 2009:
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