Saturday, September 01, 2012

"King Roger" (by Szymanowski) is one "spectacular" opera

The opera “King Roger”, by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (with libretto written with his cousin Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz) has attracted media attention recently because of a reasonably tempered version staged at the Sante Fe Opera by Stephen Wadsworth.

I bought a recent BluRay DVD (Unitel Classica) of a 2010 performance at the Bregrenz Festival with Sir Mark Elder conducing the Vienna Symphony with the Polish Radio Choir and Children’s Chorus.
The story is loosely based on the history of a 12th Century King of Sicily, Roger II, who engaged the Pope in a monumental battle to recognize his reign.  But the opera, obviously metaphorical, has some of the elements of existential horror.  A mysterious “shepherd” or prophet (Will Harmtmann) appears and captivates the King (Scott Hendricks) and his wife Roxanna (Olga Pasichnyk). Others in the kingdom (especially the Church) want him killed or driven out, but he seduces the entire community, leading to a wild dance and then a sacrifice scene. 

The music is post-romantic (from the 1920s), a mixture of Strauss, Scriabin, and the pre-atonal Schoenberg, with a little Debussy (the language of the “Martyrdom of St. Senasitan) thrown in. The shepherd’s followers stage a dance that might invite comparison with the Golden Calf dance in Schoenberg;’s “Moses and Aaron”, and at the end, Roger sings homage to the rising  Sun (after the carnage, which is truly horrific for a stage presentation), which, also now as a soloist without the chorus, invites orchestration reminding one of the end of Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder”, leading to one massive C-Major chord.   

The Shepherd’s body is covered in gold paint (like the “Ferrie” character in Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), but the other actors get smudged over pretty much in the sacrifice scenes (which include oxen heads made to look like monsters).  Merely acting in this opera (that is singing as a virtuoso) demands bodily abuse.  There is plenty of eroticism and dirty dancing, perhaps more of it heterosexual (involving Roxanna) but it’s clear that Roger is attracted to the Shepherd, and that he has been having a side relationship with the Arabian sage Edrisi (John Graham=Hall), actually based on a Muslim figure who really was a diplomat in Roger’s court. 

The Sante Fe opera has a discussion by Charles McKay on YouTube. 

An interesting aside on the composer.  He had written a homoerotic novel “Efebo” that was largely lost in the Nazi invasion of Poland. 

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