(Swans - October 8, 2012) For me the best thing about Karol Szymanowski's (1882-1937) opera King Roger (1926) was that its three intermissionless acts took but 90 minutes. Then I was free to step into the cool night air of the hills of Santa Fe and try to figure out what it was I had just seen. What Frenchman was it who once declared, "I like music that soothes me and puts me to sleep"? I like music and other theatrical events that send me into transcendental ecstasies of high emotion and bring tears to my eyes, whether of sorrow, gratitude to God, or just plain happiness. Others may find all that in KR but I am not one of them, though the Santa Fe Opera audience did give the iconic 20th-century Polish composer's work a warm reception.
Accompanied by alternating moments of religious plainchant, Debussyan impressionism, and touches of Scriabin, King Roger (there actually was a historical King Roger of Sicily in the 13th century) tells the story of a king who loses his queen, his entire kingdom, and all its inhabitants, and finally even himself to the exhortations of a shepherd-prophet who proclaims a god suggesting a combination of Jesus and Dionysus. In Freudian terms the parable of the opera seems to be the overthrow of the superego with its implications of personal and political control, in favor of the id, with all its suggestions of life-affirming wanton uncontrolled pleasure advocated by Dionysians and Bacchantians. When Roxana, his queen, who seems to have had eyes for the shepherd-prophet right from the beginning, goes off with him followed by an originally skeptical populace, Roger concludes it's time to join them; and in the course of the opera sheds, Lear-like, all remnants of his earthly power in favor of a pantheism that has him baring his breast to the rising sun as the final lights go out.
Those of you who go in for this sort of pretentious symbolical philosophizing in your operas will also no doubt enjoy (as they say on Amazon) Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten (1911-19) and John Adams's Doctor Atomic (2005) (DA must have the most pretentious libretto ever concocted in operatic history.)
The excellent singers who gave life to Szymanowski's phantasmic events included Marius Kwiecien as King Roger, Erin Morley as Queen Roxana, William Burden as the shepherd-prophet and Dennis Petersen as Edrisi, an Arab scholar and adviser to the king. Evan Rogister conducted the always excellent SFO orchestra that transmitted the composer's unceasingly vibrant orchestral colors with great skill.
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