King Roger Rules, Ambiguously

Karol Szymanowski

Quick, name a Polish composer.  Besides that one, I mean.

Did you say Szymanowski?  He’s the most obvious answer.  What, his name didn’t come to mind at all?  That’s OK.  He’s considered one of the better composers of the early 20th century, but his work hasn’t been particularly well known in the US.  I’ve been mostly oblivious to him myself, despite my interest in Eastern European music.

Chopin was asked many times to write the quintessential Polish opera.  As the quintessential opera fan, you’d think this would have been an obvious thing for him to do, but he realized that it was not a suitable project for his abilities, and he never attempted it.

The “other” Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski, did manage to compose two operas.  I didn’t know what to expect when my mother and I went to see his King Roger (Król Roger) at the Santa Fe Opera on July 21.  The first part of the 20th century is not at all my area of musical expertise, and frankly, the 40% off deal on tickets was what made up our minds to go.  Most years we only make the trek to catch the one Baroque opera SFO does each season, but there was no such thing this year (and won’t be next year either– time to write some letters).

Somehow this opera caught my imagination, and all week while working on this I have been reading about Szymanowski and listening to his works and those of his contemporaries and compatriots.  His major influences, we’re told, included Wagner, Richard Strauss, Scriabin, and of course Chopin, though you might have to put in more of an effort to make that connection.  While listening to the live performance, I was trying to relate what I was hearing to more familiar repertoire.  The otherworldly quality and the long, hovering lines put me in mind of Henryk Górecki’s cult favorite Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych), although compositionally the two have little in commonAnd was I hearing something like Mahler?  Stravinsky perhaps?  Since, again, this is far from my period of expertise, I find myself unable to write about the music with as much erudition and detail as I’d like.  What I can say is that I absolutely, surprisingly, loved it.

Last year I complained bitterly about the ugly scenery and costuming inflicted upon Vivaldi’s Griselda, and some other highly questionable staging decisions that had been made in past productions.  This time my reaction was completely the opposite; the setting and the costumes were transcendently beautiful, I thought.  On the way out, I was hearing some grumbles from a few people who would have preferred a richer, more, realistic setting, but I thought that the minimalistic stage design was perfect for the dreamlike story, which takes place in locations that may or may not be real and is open to many interpretations.  As with Griselda, the stage was dominated by a painting on the back wall, but this time in vibrant jewel tones and metallics.  The first act was set in a Byzantine church, with a Klimt-like backdrop of semi-abstract architectural motifs dominated by gold, but stopping short of gaudiness.  The panels of the painting were turned around for the rest of the opera, revealing a deep blue impressionistic sort of painting lit by lightning-like slashes of violet and white, more or less implying a night sky, which suited the storyline.

King Roger (approximately “Roh-gherr” in Polish) was a medieval Norman monarch in Sicily, the location of the story, but the costuming recalled the period of the opera’s composition, which began in 1918.  There was no attempt at modern dress this time.  I badly wanted one of the gossamer, lace-edged gowns worn by the townswomen and dancers, all of them individual and innovative without being bizarre, and all in lovely colors, neither painfully bright nor muddy.  The Bishop and Deaconess in the church scene were resplendent in massive embroidered and gold-encrusted robes that seemed to involve an impossible amount of handwork, and the king’s cloak was similarly ornate.  Roger and his Queen, Roxana, were dressed for a formal 1918 occasion, in an elegant black suit and a graceful red gown, along with their royal cloaks and crowns.  The Shepherd was appropriate in a rustic outfit with boots and a sheepskin coat.  No one was made to look stupid or awkward.

And now that I’ve written all that, I notice that SFO has video, so that you can see it for yourself:

There was also less of the writhing on the floor, crawling on the belly, and other contortions singers have been put through in past productions, making the show more comfortable for the audience to watch as well as for the singers to perform.  All of the singers handled their roles superbly and were able to easily hold the audience in thrall; Mariusz Kwiecien, in the title role, had all the star quality one could ask for, but no one was overshadowed.  The stripped-down staging allowed one to focus on the characters and their voices, without the visual distractions I found so unpleasant in previous productions.  The vocal lines don’t call for the gymnastics necessary in Mozart or Rossini, but they seem challenging to tune against the roiling background of the orchestra, and they are often long and soaring and require a lot of sustaining power.  Intonation seemed excellent generally, both voices and instruments.  I thought that the small size of the orchestra helped to keep the texture of the music lucid and not overly dense or heavy.

The story, as I said, is open to a number of interpretations.  However, I can’t wrap my brain around the end of the 2009 version from the Opera Bastille in Paris, which I found while preparing this post.  The final scene has the King in boxer shorts and nothing else, and all the other characters on stage also in underwear, with giant papier-maché mouse heads.

We’re told that this staging was “controversial,”and on the video of the finale you can hear the audience simultaneously cheering for the music and booing the staging.  Kwiecien said in an interview that at first he’d thought it was weird, but then he got to like it very much. After I read an amusing Opera Today review, at, the Parisian approach made more sense to me, except for the mouse heads.  The expert reviewer was completely stymied by the mouse heads.  At any rate, I’m grateful that SFO took a different route, especially since the story is hard enough to understand without such gratuitous whimsy.

It’s so debatable, in fact, that we were given two quite different synopses with our programs.  Someone must have hotly contested the version in the program book, because as we entered the opera grounds, we were handed pages that contradicted it.  I’ll get to what the difference was in a moment.

The libretto was a collaboration between the composer and his cousin, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.  As the story opens, in the church, the King, who appears depressed and listless, is told of a strange man who has been preaching in the fields outside the city, a young Shepherd who attracts followers with his magnetic gaze.  He speaks of a different God, a Dionysus-like deity, who asks his people to enjoy themselves and be free rather than to follow the established dogma.  A great many of the local people have already joined his flock.  The church officials naturally object to this, and the King isn’t crazy about the affront to his authority, either.  The King decides that the Shepherd must die, but agrees to meet with him and hear him explain himself before condemning him.

When the King does meet the Shepherd, he is as much taken with him as everyone else has been, and cannot send him to his death.  The Queen immediately goes off to follow the Shepherd, along with nearly everyone else in the realm, leaving the King alone except for one advisor, Edrisi.  The King must decide whether to give himself over to this new life or to cling to the throne of his now-empty kingdom.  He goes to find Roxana, and meets her in the ruins of an ancient temple.  The Shepherd and his followers dance ecstatically, but Roger still seems to resist wholeheartedly joining their rituals.  In the final scene, Roger is alone again, and he either dies, according to the version in the program book, or is transformed, according to the one we were given at the door.  Or it was all a dream.  Or the King was insane and hallucinating the entire time.  Szymanowski, expressing the profound uncertainties of Europe after WWI, refused to be pinned down.  I prefer to think that King Roger was transformed and was freed from his love of power and the constraints of his position and his society.

This puzzling story seemed very Polish to me, and reminded me of Krasiński’s famous Undivine Comedy (Nie-Boska komedia).  Both stories explore the clash of old and new regimes and of freedom and egalitarianism trying to break down a stagnant, dying aristocratic society.  Krasiński’s conclusion was that only spiritual enlightenment could create a way forward from the ruins, and my impression is that Szymanowski is telling us something very similar.  So that’s my version.

One might also see the King and the Shepherd as warring aspects of the same person.  Some commentators see the tension and attraction between the two central characters as an expression of Szymanowski’s homosexuality, but everyone is attracted to the Shepherd, not just the King, and that seems to me to be a minor aspect of the story.  What seems more important is the King’s fear of losing his wife to the charismatic younger man.

I’d wondered if I would understand any of the lyrics, and was delighted to find that a fair amount of the language did get through to me.  Only one complete sentence, I’m afraid– it was “Mój bóg jest piękny jako ja” (“My god is beautiful like me”).  This raised some mild guffaws from the audience, William Burden not being an Adonis type, but I think we understood the point.  Trying to match what I was hearing to the meaning given by the subtitles on the backs of the chairs added a lot to the fun for me.

I have to apologize for this post becoming such a link-fest.  Just now I thought I was finished, and went looking for an image or two to add.  It turned out that a much more erudite reviewer, the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, had shown up in Santa Fe and had written a July 27 piece on King Roger.

Dang, I thought, there probably wasn’t any sense in my writing a review at all!  But Mr. Tommasini got a few things wrong.  For one thing, he wrote, “But in the final act the shepherd appears once more and, either in reality or in Roger’s hallucination, is revealed to be Dionysus.  Unfortunately, Mr. Burden was made up to look like Papageno, in leaf-covered pants, frumpy coat and laurel crown.”  As far as I could tell, the Shepherd’s lower half was meant to be the legs of a satyr, covered with fur, not leaves.  I might have been unable to see clearly enough, but that was how it looked to me, and again, I didn’t feel that any of the costumes made the characters look ridiculous.  The satyr persona seemed to fit in well enough.

At any rate, Tommasini concluded that the production was “just not dangerous enough.”  After suffering through the weird-for-weird’s-sake productions of past years, I was completely fine with that.  And when introducing a nearly unknown work by an unfamiliar composer, it seems to me just as well to go easy on the audience’s poor brains, as they are likely to be challenged enough by the music itself.

The personnel of the Santa Fe production:

Roxana – Erin Morley

Shepherd – William Burden

Edrisi – Dennis Petersen

King Roger – Mariusz Kwiecien

Archbishop – Raymond Aceto

Conductor – Evan Rogister

Director – Stephen Wadsworth

Scenic Designer – Thomas Lynch

Costume Designer – Ann Hould-Ward

Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler

Choreographer – Peggy Hickey

Roxana’s aria is one of the eeriest and most lyrically lovely parts of the opera, and this is a transcendent performance:

An earlier part of the Paris production, showing the King being injected with something, which would explain a lot:

A more “normal”-looking Polish production:

The Wikipedia entry on this opera is so up-to-date that it includes the Santa Fe production:

If you want to hear more Szymanowski, you might try his “Stabat Mater” (“Stała Matka bolejąca”):

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