Sunday, August 5, 2012

Szymanowski’s King Roger at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Part of the fun of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is figuring it out. Forget primal-action verismo. We’re in Symbolist opera in the Age of Freud, where everything is mysterious, internalized, and dream-like.

In its American premiere production (with a major company) at the Santa Fe Opera, nearly a century after the work’s 1926 Warsaw debut, King Roger’s three tableau-like acts of decorative inaction left some audiences  perplexed, but its luscious score and the fine performances of principals, chorus, and orchestra more than compensated for the work’s oratorio-like stasis.

The story is a mythical take on a real 12th century Norman who inherited the Kingdom of Sicily. The arrival of a mysterious shepherd unsettles the court and the kingdom. The young man with golden locks  is a wannabe prophet who describes his God “as youthful and beautiful as I am.” Conservative courtiers demand the apostate be put to death, but many in the realm are attracted to him. King Roger’s wife, Roxana, and his trusted scholar Edrisi urge a fair trial. Joyless and without pleasure himself, Roger agrees to the trial in his quarters, where later everything begins to spin out of control -- for the king, his wife, and most of his subjects.

Like his wife, Roger is attracted to the shepherd, but early on he sees a danger for license to become licentiousness. (If you notice this shepherd’s similarity to free-love gurus in the Age of Aquarius, you won’t be the first.) Roger's ensuing struggle is one of mind over matter, a choice between the duties of leadership and the distractions of sensuality.

Director Stephen Wadsworth sets the action in the traditional time-period, signaled by Ann Hould-Ward’s brocaded Byzantine costumes, but with the king wearing an anachronistic early 20th century business suit, a nod to that era's repressed sexuality and possibly also to composer Szymanowski’s real-life closeted torments. (Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, had explored a similar theme.)

Time and place are suggested by Thomas Lynch’s initially pictorial but later abstracted panels in back and above the stage, reinforced by Duane Schuler’s mood lighting. The first act’s Byzantine cathedral is bathed in golds and reds, the second act’s royal quarters in a blue-green of Arabic-Indian sensuality, and the final act’s Greek theater in the ultimate clarity of sky-blue.

Szymanowski, a lover of distant lands, invested his score with luxuriant music, notable for Klimt-like colors that capture the flavor of these exotic locales. His personal stamp of voluptuously stacked harmonies and dissonances are in the Wagner-Strauss tradition, with influences from the Impressionists and contemporaries like Franz Schreker, who’s Symbolist Die Gezeichneten had premiered eight years before. The score was well-served by the orchestra under Evan Rogister's nuanced shaping; the chorus well-prepared by Susanne Sheston.


Wadsworth’s narrative focused more on the thoughts and person of King Roger than the erotically charged shock values that could have spiced the production even more but also overwhelmed its internal drama. Peggy Hickey’s choreography in the bacchanal (in which King Roger himself participates) was likewise on the tame side, given the super-charged music Szymanowski clearly modeled after a certain dance in Strauss' Salome. The work’s heaving, pleading and sighing vocal declamations lack the rhythmic thrust of action opera, and as a result reinforce its dream-like state.

In the central role of Roger, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was to the manner born. Magnificently bringing to life the king’s nobility, he shaded the role with a searing vulnerability that made its elusive internal dilemma credible. In a treacherous journey of self-discovery and reconciliation, the king’s state of mind shifts between anxieties of a fading hold on his people, self-doubts of his own masculinity, and desires he is compelled to resist. Though Kwiecien’s stentorian baritone might have been modulated down in some of the more intimate scenes, his focus on this complex character never faltered.


William Burden’s shepherd was the plangent-voiced object of Roger’s repressed desires and a powerful lure drawing his people away. As a seductive golden-locked youth, however, Burden is a tad long-in-the-tooth to fully convince, but his shepherd did manage as an imperturbable, otherworldly presence of sensual liberation. His third act transformation from prophet to a goat-legged Dionysus was the image that strengthens the king’s resolve to reject him, even as most of the king's subjects, including his wife, follow the shepherd away.

Erin Morely’s youthful, silvery soprano had Roxana transforming from a loyal wife to one increasingly enthralled by the visitor to the court. As the shepherd's lure insinuates itself into Roxana's soul, her vocalizations shift from conversational advocacy to trance-like melismas importuning her flummoxed husband to come to the other side. It is some of Szymanowski’s most beguiling music.

In the midst of all the king’s inner turmoil, Dennis Peterson’s Edrisi was the faithful, non-judgmental mirror to his master’s mind. As the forces of immutable stability, Laura Wilde’s Deaconess and Raymond Aceto’s Archbishop pulled the other way.

In the end, is King Roger a historic myth, a composer’s autobiographical therapy, or a fervid dream? It may be all three, but Wadsworth saves the final scene for what is most likely his own answer.

As King Roger awakens with only the trusted Edrisi at his side, the latter declares the dream is dead, the illusion over. The battle had ultimately been more about a mental state than the affairs of state. Roger has found peace. He crowns his head with a Dionysian wreath and drapes his kingly robe over his shoulders. His northern nature has reconciled with his southern nurture.

Roger can finally be both man and king.



King Roger, opera in three acts, based on The Bacchae of Euripides
Music by Karol Szymanowski, text by Szymanowski and Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz

Premiere of the work in a new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 25 & August 3
Additional performances: August 9 & 14

Note: King Roger received a staged production at the Long Beach Opera in California in 1988. It also received a partially staged performances by Bard College in New York in 2008. 

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]


georgianna Nyman Aronson said...

A marvelous and succinct review of the work of a compound-complex composer with a penetrating understanding and explanation of the inner workings of his subtle and evolved music that has been so seldom heard because of its difficult unfamiliar complexities.This is a long overdue analysis that is clarifying and educative in making us feel welcome to come enter the inner sanctum of the genius of Szymanowski.

Rodney Punt said...

Georgianna, do you have the extra time to be my press agent? (Just kidding!) Thanks for the nice words.

Friend Dennis Carlile, who claims to be computer illiterate, asked me to post this for him. Here it is:

Rod: Thanks for this review! KING ROGER is one of the great masterpieces (along with Hanson's MERRYMOUNT, Keiser's CROESUS and Korngold's VIOLANTA) that do not get the number of stagings they deserve. --DJC

Rodney Punt said...

Gary Campbell left this comment on Facebook and requested I repost it on LAOpus:

I would have killed to see "King Roger", and thanks for your review.
Note: "Roi Rogers" was its title recently in Paris. Wonder if Dale Evans was in the cast.
Though the composer set it in medieval Sicily, it is based on Euripides' "The Bacchae", as is Henze's "The Bassarids", which interestingly, Santa Fe has done, the American premiere of the Cut Down version. Roger/Pentheus= Reason The Shepherd/Dionysus=The Sensual : clearly a real issue in Ancient Greece where "Moderation in All Things" was not universally accepted.The historical King Roger was a major player in the transmission of knowledge between Christian Spain and the influx of Islam in Spain, Sicily being a go-between of the two cultures back then. I really don't know why Szym. chose that historical context, but I am sure it was very philosophical.

Stephen said...

Wonderfully rich review. I get an historical and artistic context that gives me a real sense of the work. The description of Szymanowski’s music was particularly fascinating to me. Thanks, Rodney.