06 August 2012

Santa Fe Opera 2012: Szymanowski’s ‘King Roger’

Ever-heroic: Mariusz Kwiecien as Szymanowski’s protagonist.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera’s sterling reputation rests in part on the exploration of works one hears rarely if anywhere, and so I made a point of sampling this season’s productions of two works that I knew (and admired) only from recordings, Rossini’s Maometto II and Karol Szymanowski’s Krol Roger (King Roger). Roger is a particularly fascinating work, imbued with a sadness and frustration that have as much to do with the composer’s life as with what one actually sees and hears onstage.

Something of a Christian revision of Euripides’ The Bacchae, Roger concerns the eponymous ruler of Sicily who, with his beautiful wife, Roxana, presides over a glittering court. A bit bored and restless when we first meet him, he has no grounds for complaint — until word reaches him of a mysterious Shepherd, whose crypto-religious pronouncements are exciting the countryside. The Shepherd turns out to be a curiously Christ-like Dionysus, and Roger is strangely attracted to him. It’s Roxana who runs off with the Shepherd, however, and try though he might, Roger can’t bring himself to join the cult. Instead, he gives himself over to the sun — the manifestation of Dionysus’ Nietzschean opposite, Apollo — ending the opera on an ambiguous note. What happens next to Roger? Who knows?

The trouble with this opera is that, just as Roger can’t surrender entirely to the Shepherd/Dionysus, so Szymanowski can’t quite bring himself to tell this story. Contemporary audiences — including a number of European stage directors — understand King Roger as a drama of thwarted homosexual desire. When Roger cries out for the errant Roxana, it’s not because he’s lost his wife to another man, but because all his adult life he has depended on her to protect him from other men. (I’ve seen this scenario played out in real life, countless times.) That Roger (and for that matter Szymanowski) sees homosexuality as potentially destructive is seen in the consequences of the king’s desire for the Shepherd: Roger loses his court and his power.

Conscience of the King: The Shepherd (Burden) confronts Roger (Kwiecien), while the queen (Morley) looks on.

In 1918, deeply Catholic Poland wasn’t ready fully to explore this subject matter. While Szymanowski himself found a degree of liberation by traveling south, where desire could be expressed with (rentable?) boys, at home he was constrained; he’d also lost the personal fortune that had permitted him to enjoy a richly cultivated lifestyle since boyhood. Again and again, both in the score and the libretto (by Jaroslav Iwaszkiewicz, with substantial contributions and emendations from the composer), one hears Szymanowski yearning to say what he means. He doesn’t quite manage — why didn’t he set The Bacchae instead? But the piece is fascinating nevertheless.

The result is a not-wholly convincing text set to a plush late-Romantic score, with especially gorgeous, intensely powerful choral writing and brilliant orchestration. There’s always something pulsing beneath the surface, suggestive and even scary. The three leads are given demanding yet gratifying vocal lines: the sheer otherness of the Shepherd’s music, for example, makes clear his seductive power, especially when sung here by the tenor William Burden, perfectly cast. This artist’s ability to project a kind of sunny depravity is just about unmatched: I recall, for example, his Nerone in Houston Grand Opera’s Coronation of Poppea, with particular admiration.

Unfortunately, Burden’s performance was undercut by Ann Hould-Ward’s costume design, which made him look more like a Dresden figurine than like a savage divinity. That was the lone misstep in Hould-Ward’s work here, which dressed the cast in late-19th-century finery that evoked the privileged background from which Szymanowski himself sprang, and which surely influenced his conception of Roger’s court. Act I’s pomp represented the best of Thomas Lynch’s scenic design, which grew increasingly colorless, character-less, and neutral in Acts II and III, when presumably we are moving closer to resolution.

Soprano Erin Morley, as lovely to look at as to listen to, made a memorable Roxana, artfully tracing the queen’s path from support to goading to abandonment of her husband. She navigated the difficult vocal lines, by turns jagged and sinuous, with such clean-cut precision that it was somewhat startling to hear her the next night in one of the most florid Romantic coloratura arias imaginable, “O beau pays de la Touraine,” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.** King Roger’s fourth leading role, the courtier Edrisi, isn’t exactly a showcase, but Dennis Petersen offered a warmly sung, compassionately characterized interpretation.

Queen blocks King: Kwiecien and Morley

Inevitably, perhaps, the evening belonged to conductor Evan Rogister, with his sumptuous, commanding reading of the score, and to baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role. I was lucky enough to hear Kwiecien this season at the Met as Don Giovanni and as Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore, appropriately hunky roles that require kinds of virility wholly different from that required in this opera. Himself Polish and gay, and singing for once a leading role in his native tongue, Kwiecien delivered a powerhouse performance, with a physical athleticism that showed no sign of the back injury that led him to cancel a few of those Met Giovannis.

His shirt is supposed to rip to shreds in the final scene, but his trousers aren’t: that they did so is just one demonstration of his commitment to the role. And Kwiecien’s vocalism was ever heroic, sailing over the orchestra, rising gloriously no mater how low Roger sinks into confusion and pain. He’s sung the king elsewhere (notably in Paris), and it’s clear that he represents this opera’s best hope for a wider contemporary audience. (You never find yourself thinking, “What a justly forgotten masterwork; why didn’t they leave it in the archive where they found it?”) So long as he’s around to give performances like this one, I can’t say with certainty that I’ll never see King Roger again — and that’s good news.

Stage director Stephen Wadsworth has masterminded several productions I admire, including the New York City Opera Xerxes that served as my introduction to countertenor David Daniels and as one of my rare chances to see the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson onstage. Somewhere between press time for the program notes and opening night, Wadsworth decided on a change in focus in the final sequence, necessitating a (beautifully printed) handout with a revised synopsis.

In performance, Wadsworth makes Roger’s surrender to Apollo far more explicit and uplifting than I’d expected. (In fact, I’d always interpreted this scene as Roger’s death, though upon review there’s no specific justification for my reading.) A note of greater ambiguity might have been welcome here, but Wadsworth wants Apollonian “purification” in its purest sense. His Roger doesn’t need the Shepherd or the court or anything that used to torment him, and to that degree this staging is almost a wish-fulfillment for the tormented Szymanowski — one that certainly is permitted in the score and yet not quite spelled out. Like so much of this opera, it’s the story that Szymanowski couldn’t quite tell.

Any misgivings I felt during (and expressed immediately after) the performance are dissipating now that I’m home, with the libretto and the Thomas Hampson/Simon Rattle recording as references. A cautionary tale, perhaps, for critics who rush to file a review to meet an early deadline — but in any case a further demonstration of Santa Fe Opera’s doing what it’s famous for — which is to say, making us think, as well as listen.

Evoé! Roger (Kwiecien) and the Shepherd (Burden) join in the Dionysian rite.

NOTE: Regrettably, my visit to Santa Fe Opera bypassed a new production of Arabella, by Richard Strauss, a composer to whom the festival has shown remarkable devotion — starting with its founder, John Crosby, who did as much as anyone for making Strauss an indelible part of the repertory not only in Santa Fe but throughout the United States. So I didn’t quite manage to sample all the things for which Santa Fe Opera is famous.

**Readers of James Joyce will remember “O beau pays” as an aria that the amateur soprano Molly Bloom is practicing in one section of Ulysses. Such a difficult piece is an indicator that Molly is either an accomplished singer or a truly terrible one. No middle ground is possible — as the music-loving Joyce surely knew.


Michael said...

Tjis really sounds like a wonderful production. He is brinign Roger to London in 2014 I think. First I have heard though of Marius' trousers shredding! details please lol....

William V. Madison said...

Ha! I'll confirm tighty-whities, but you'll have to ask somebody else for any further information.

Michael said...

Thats food for thought thank you!

John Forestner said...

Bill: beautifully and thoughtfully said. Your initial reposte to me outside after the performance about what was permissible in interwar Warsaw was true. It brings up aspects of "code" for repressed homosexuals, a favorite trope of Alex Katz, where artists communicate gay themes to the initiates, as often seen in cinema, visual arts, and sometimes music. As you state beautifully on your comments, Roger' s longing for Roxana may be interpreted by heterosexuals as lamenting over a lost spouse, while gay spectators may see it as terror over loss of a shield to ward off seductive males. Interesting
and valid interpretation. Satisfyingly ambiguous.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, John. Our conversation did help me to focus my thoughts about the production, and, as I say, my response continued to evolve long after the performance ended.