I ran into a friend after last night's performance of Szymanowski's King Roger, and as she put it, we were both stunned, in a good way, by the piece. It's not done often, though it is starting to get more attention. I imagine the major barriers are the unorthodox religious stance of the Shepherd, the homoeroticism (at least in this production....!), and the Polish language. The first two really, really should not be a problem these days in most countries, and, okay, learning operatic Polish gives a singer access to a fairly small repertory (Strasny dwor, anyone?).
Beyond that and the little problem of selling tickets - my gosh, why would any company not stage King Roger? The music is glorious, a richly orchestrated brew that sounds like a cross between Strauss and Berg while quite obviously being neither. Thematically, it deals with the conflict between orthodox, church or temple-based religion and nature-oriented religion, the one with its constraints, the other with its ability to slip all constraints and run wild.
Indeed, to the extent that there is a plot, that is it: a shepherd appears in a kingdom, espousing a religion of the fields, mountains, and streams. The populace is initially resistant and wants him tried and executed, but the King's wife, Roxana, is open to his message. By the end of the opera, the King has been at least briefly carried away into a bacchanal, and his wife and subjects have run off with the shepherd. In between - the opera is a short 90 minutes, three acts that run continuously - the King is variously enraged by his wife's attraction to the shepherd and his religion and attracted his own self. Yes, there are a few smoldering moments between King and shepherd, you bet, and I certainly know what I make of the King's admission of a cold heart toward his wife.
Santa Fe has given King Roger a bang-up performance. Stephen Wadsworth directs, in a straightforward manner; the Personregie is adequate, though not revelatory. The sets are sparse and handsome, though i wish they'd left the back wall open; in this nature-inspired opera, I would have loved to see the drifting mists and distant lightning. (As it was, we had to settle for a visiting dragonfly or two.)
On the musical side, things could really not have been better: Evan Rogister did a fine job of handling the large and colorful orchestra, and on stage, wow. Mariusz Kwiecien and William Burden burned up the stage as the King and shepherd, respectively, though interestingly the King has hotter music than that of the shepherd, who lives very much in his own world. Erin Morley, whom I had not heard before, made a gorgeous Roxana. What a voice - distinctively dark, beautiful, sterling control. Dennis Petersen sang very well and was just rightt as the King's counselor.
And the chorus! They have a lot of heavy lifting, starting with the crypto-church-hymn at the beginning and going all the way to the end. They were fabulous, with, I think, some choristers singing behind the scrim at the back of the stage.
I wish I could see it again, and I sure do hope that other companies pick up this gorgeous work.