Ever since its 1926 premiere in Warsaw, Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger has been one of those conundrums of 20th-century music. Generically speaking, is it an opera? A dramatic oratorio? A morality play? Is it a work of penetrating insight into psycho-sexual complexities or a murky slog through mystico-symbological pretense? The New Yorker’s Alex Ross called it in three words: “daring and strange.” Even Szymanowski dubbed it at one point a “mysterium.”
Well, the production that just opened at the Santa Fe Opera is having none of that. The mystery and menace that lie at the heart of the piece are intact, all right, but in the lucid vision presented here, many of the woolly excrescences that could cling to King Roger become irrelevant. For this authoritative treatment of one of the more puzzling, and rewarding, works in the repertoire, credit the combined genius of three people—conductor Evan Rogister, stage director Stephen Wadsworth and, above all, Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role.
Szymanowski’s multilayered, many-colored score could be, and sometimes is, dismissed as a skillful stew of, say, Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy,” Debussy’s Le martyre de St Sébastien and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Not with Rogister in charge. His is a unified vision.
This vibrant young conductor, making his SFO debut here, knows his way around Szymanowski's challenging score. He's alert to every nuance, doesn't overplay the work's exoticism, coaxes wonderful detail work from the SFO's never-better orchestra and provides some of the most shattering climaxes ever to emerge from the local pit.
It's a pleasure to welcome Wadsworth back after too many years. He suggests the allure of Sicily's Greco-Byzantine-Norman-Arabic culture while updating the action to roughly the period of the opera's composition. More importantly, he provides a compressed chronicle of psychological transformation. Roger's tortured self, an abyss of denial and bronze-clad feeling, meets the nameless Shepherd, a Dionysian apostle of sensual abandon and multi-sexual freedom. It's a shocking encounter that leads to a personal epiphany. In the final moments of the piece, Roger's purified heart sustains both sacred and profane love in an overwhelming C Major apotheosis.
Wadsworth’s conception attempts what Wagnerians call Gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts, including Szymanowski’s sensuous score and its decadent poetry; Thomas Lynch’s scenic backgrounds hinting at Odilon Redon’s symbolist dreamscapes; and over-the-top Bacchanalian frenzy with filmy costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. The action moves seamlessly through three intermissionless acts.
But ultimately, it’s Kwiecien’s show. A peculiar musical marking, molto ansioso, occurs more than once in the score and offers a key to Kwiecien’s posture nearly throughout. Anxious, fearful, incomplete, restless, he roams the stage like a desperate creature. I can’t think of a contemporary singer who more totally inhabits a role in such powerful physical, emotional and vocal terms.
Szymanowski places his final action within the ruins of an ancient Greek theater. How appropriate. When after his agonizing encounters, Kwiecien dismisses Dionysus and sings out a passionate apostrophe to the sun, his voice and transformed demeanor proclaim with assurance: This is a Hero, delivering a performance you won't soon forget.
He has heroic support from William Burden, the honey-voiced Shepherd; Erin Morley as queen Roxana, whose unearthly second act aria is a wonder; Dennis Petersen as his advisor, Edrisi; and a huge chorus deftly supervised by Susanne Sheston.