Szymanowski's King Roger is an opera which still does not have the currency it deserves. There have been a few recent European productions and now Santa Fe Opera has made a very strong case for the work in Stephen Wadsworth's new production with Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role.
Szymanowski's score is lush, complex and richly allusive, but very compact; just three acts of 30 minutes each, which Santa Fe Opera played without a break. It is difficult to understand why the piece has not become more popular because the score is by no means as challenging as Berg's Wozzeck (which was written at the same time), though Szymanowski's multi-layered exoticism and luscious textures can seem a trifle rich to digest at first. But his style is not just about surface beauty, and the piece is highly dramatic and expressive.
The opera's plot is, perhaps, the biggest bar to popular acceptance. It is highly allegorical, in the manner of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. At the most basic level it is the story of a marriage in trouble, that of King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien) and his Queen, Roxane (Erin Morley). The appearance of charismatic shepherd (William Burden) disturbs things and he tempts Roxana to go off, leaving Roger behind.
But it is also about the pull between Dionysian and Apollonian elements, between the heart and the head, between ecstasy and discipline. The shepherd represents Dionysus and is a character who is attractive to all people, men and women. Both Roger and Roxane are drawn to him. In fact the most important relationship in the opera is that between Roger and the Shepherd.
This brings us to another layer, Szymanowski's homosexuality. A simplistic but perfectly valid interpretation of the piece would be in terms of Roger's struggle being that of his sexuality.
Luckily Wadsworth did not do anything so reductive. Nor did he impose an interpretation full of Jungian archetypes. For those familiar with the recent Paris production (excerpts of which are on Youtube), it was a relief to discover that there was no swimming pool and no Mickey Mouse costume.
Instead, Kwiecien's Roger went on a journey, an interior journey which is mirrored in the music. Thomas Lynch's setting was simple but effective. Above the staging area hung a huge frieze which changed in each act. For act 1 it was rich, gold and Klimt-like (but based on the historic cathedral built by King Roger in Sicily), this together with the gorgeous costumes (early 20th century in period, designed by Ann Hould-Ward) created a strong impression of King Roger's court.
As the acts progressed the staging got simpler, the frieze became more and more abstract, concentrating our attention on the singers and the music. As King Roger and Roxane went on a journey they both changed, shedding layers of clothes as they left the rich court functions behind, with Kwiecien finally bare chested and Morley in a simple red slip. An important part of King Roger'a persona at the opening was a magnificent red cope-like cloak (based on the real King Roger's one, now in Vienna). This he retrieved and put back on for his final transformation.
The production was not a particularly daring one. At the end of act 3 when the shepherd reappears as Dionysus (summoned by Roger and Roxane) his followers were scantily clad, but act 2, when the shepherd whips up King Roger's court into a dance of ecstasy, was very tame. Certainly it did not invoke memories of the Maenads in The Bacchae (a play which was very influential on Szymanowski's thinking).
The relationship between King Roger and the shepherd was similarly understated, but there was a very definite relationship. Burden and Kwiecien developed an intense interaction, but one which never reached its consummation. This was on a par with Wadsworth's vision of the piece being about King Roger's journey. He never, quite dedicates himself to Dionysus and at the end dedicates himself to the sun (to Apollo). But in Wadsworth's production, as the shepherd departs he leaves King Roger his laurel wreath crown. For Wadsworth the opera's conclusion is about balance.
All this worked because Wadsworth managed to inculcate such intense performances from all his principals.
In the title role, Kwiecien gave a towering performance. Richly intense of voice, he was both commanding and tortured, Roger's problems were apparent in Kwiecien's performance. He is a highly watchable artist and took us on his journey with him. Roger is on stage for virtually all of the opera, and Kwiecien was vivdly central, his performance very intense, sometimes painfully so.
William Burden as the shepherd had to content with a costume which made him look more like an ageing hippy than a shepherd. But Burden was convincingly charismatic and his singing of the shepherd's high lying line was as achingly beautiful and as exotic as necessary.
As I have said, Burden and Kwiecien developed a powerful relationship. There are not many operas where the strongest erotic pull in the piece is between two men, Kwiecien and Burden were believably so, without descending into soap opera.
Erin Morely as Roxana sang the Queen's gorgeous high lying cantilena with ease and beauty. She looked ravishing, but the character is an easy convert to the shepherd's creed, we are more interested in Roger's story. Denis Petersen as King Roger's Arab aide Edrisi, was a constant and supportive presence throughout.
For the chorus, the Santa Fe Opera Young Artists were strengthened by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. The effect in the opening scene, was magical as the rich stage picture combined with Szymanowski's choral chants. Raymond Aceto was a powerful archbishop with Laura Wilde as the deaconess.
Under Evan Rogister (making his Santa Fe Opera debut) the orchestra gave a fine performance, relishing Szymanowski's lovely textures and bringing out the score's subtlety.
One hopes that this landmark production represents a further step in the acceptance of King Roger and that Wadsworth's production, admirable for its clarity and subtlety, might have an onward live too.
Further coverage of Santa Fe Opera on this blog