Thursday, July 26, 2012

King Roger, Santa Fe Opera

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.


Anonymous said...

Long Beach Opera did it in 1988, its American stage premiere, in a David Alden production that was no help at all (trench coats, stage littered with chairs, etc). National critics came (including Andrew Porter) and were unkind. But musically, wow! My reaction to the piece was the same as yours, and I've wished to see it again ever since. I envy you, but alas my vacation budget for the year has been spent.

I did think at the time that if ever an opera deserved the full Franco Zeffirelli treatment this is it. Vast cathedral interiors, acres of swag, chorus boys with bare midriffs, etc, to go with that luscious score. The homoeroticism I'm sure was put there by the composer and should on no account be avoided.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I agree! (About the homoeroticism - need to think about Zef.) And what a shame about the '88 production.

Henry Holland said...

One thing working against more productions is that it requires forces the size of the big Strauss operas but it's only 80 minutes long--that's my test of the conducting, can it fit on a single CD, because if it can't, the tempos are too slow. It's too short for a full night in the theater but the forces required somewhat mitigate against the expense of doing a companion piece.

My favorite performance is a concert performance by Charles Dutoit at the Chatelet in Paris in the 90's but my tape has disappeared and it hasn't shown up on the usual pirate sites.

I've only seen one production, at Bard, when I made the bonehead decision to go there instead of Santa Fe for Saariaho's Adriana Mater. The production was minimal, in a bad way, the singing was just good (it needs great from the tenor) and the conducting, well, Leon Botstein.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Those are excellent points, though I believe that if Salome and Elektra can stand alone, so can Krol Roger. It's not long, but it is intense. I can't think of an appropriate companion piece, either. It seems a good length.

I did not time last night's performance but it was in the 80-90 minute range. I had never heard it before; the pacing seemed fine.

Botstein: yeah. There is no way that he has the technical skill and musical vision to pull this thing off. It may be short, but it's a monster in other ways.