02 Aug 2012

Santa Fe Opera, Karol Szymanowski : King Roger

The gifted Polish composer Karol Szymanowski wrote his three-act King Roger, in the 1920's. It is an allegorical tale of honor vs. pleasure set to quite beautiful music, especially in the orchestral writing, which Santa Fe chose to play in the same season as the Rossini in a wide tip of the hat to unknown but worthy repertory.

While King Roger is rarely heard, I happen to have experienced it in 1980 when the St. Louis Symphony presented two performances in concert form under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, who was an advocate for Szymanowski’s music. It made very little impression at that time, but heightened my appreciation of the Santa Fe production, whose theatrical qualities much enhanced the somewhat tepid tale of the Sicilian king, if one set within an unusually rich musical tapestry. A colorful and dramatic production of a static opera can make the effort seem worthwhile, and King Roger’s treatment by Santa Fe could hardly have been more beneficial. (Santa Fe played the opera in one 90-minute act that enhanced continuity.)

First of all the music: Wide swathes of Debussy-influenced tone painting abound, forming an impressionistic atmosphere, often punctuated and disputed by sharp polytonal accents and chromatic arguments in the full orchestra, illustrating Roger’s unhappy moods. The King is torn between his conventional church-approved duties as Monarch, versus the upsetting proposals of a charismatic Shepherd that appeared from nowhere, and much beguiled not only Roger’s subjects but also his wife, Roxana, with tempting ideas about sensual and erotic pleasures. Roger himself is tempted but also dismayed by the Shepherd whose call he hears all too well. In the end the King restores order, at least in his own mind, and assumes the royal robes of convention, but not without having been marked by life’s Dionysian distractions. With lots of talk, lots of posturing and agonizing and a rather ho-hum plot, King Roger is saved by the elegant and original music emanating from the orchestra. The vocal writing is mainly declamatory or conversational, with few if any memorable set pieces, aside from Roxanna’s song, a haunting vocalise that accompanies her fall to Dionysius.

Special appreciation must go to Evan Rogister, the young American conductor, who was a leading hand in making the show work. The singers were all competent, and sometimes more than that, but it is an ensemble opera without the need for star turns. As the King, young Polish lyric baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was authoritative and convincing, perhaps more in the King’s suffering than otherwise, but his is a lyric voice, so fine in Mozart, sometimes taxed in Szymanowski’s bigger moments. His Roxana was handsomely sung by the soprano Erin Morley who brought silvery beauty to her aria. The Shepherd is a hard role to cast and no doubt a difficult one to perform, but ingratiating tenor William Burden rose to the occasion, even if sometimes his top tones turned a bit pale and hard to hear. Raymond Aceto lent his distinguished baritone voice to the role of the Archbishop, with Dennis Peterson and Laura Wilde serving well in secondary parts.

The effectively played stage action was conceived by highly regarded director Stephen Wadsworth whose ideas were strong and clarifying, and were assisted by the ingenious if spare set designs of Thomas Lynch. The unusually fine costumes were by Ann Hould-Ward. Her designs, detailed and impressive, especially in Act I, immediately established a feeling of style and quality that set the right tone and engaged the viewer; strong input by Ms Hould-Ward who first worked at Santa Fe in 1992. I must particularly acknowledge the accomplishment of chorus master Susanne Sheston, whose Santa Fe Opera apprentice singers, augmented by twenty-four professional voices from the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, gave a superior account of Szymanowski’s sumptuous choral writing, one of the most noteworthy beauties of the score. I hope to meet King Roger again some day. His is an enchanting and musically rewarding illusion.

© J.A. Van Sant, 2012