Ten or 15 years ago, director Stephen Wadsworth’s production of the Polish opera “King Roger” might have been faulted for muting the work’s obvious homoerotic subtext. Seen at the Santa Fe Opera this season, Karol Szymanowski’s magnum opus is one of the greatest and least-known operatic masterpieces of the early 20th century, and its intensity is due in large part to the self-division, anguish and repression of the title character. Based largely on themes in Euripides’ “The Bacchae” and Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” the plot is simple: Roger, King of Sicily, is challenged and unnerved by the appearance of a beautiful young shepherd who preaches a new religion of sensuality, ecstasy and transcendence.
The 21st-century viewer will be tempted to file it with the works of Oscar Wilde, or the decadent writers of late 19th-century France, or the operas Benjamin Britten wrote in the middle of the last century: An almost embarrassing hiding in plain sight of desire that was illegal then, but commonplace now. Szymanowski, a “confirmed bachelor,” wrote a homoerotic novel called “Efebos” (mostly lost in a fire during the 1939 siege of Warsaw), composed poems with titles such as “Ganymede” and fell deeply in love with the young dancer and poet Boris Kochno, who played a major role in Diaghelev’s Ballets Russes. The great pianist Artur Rubenstein, who championed Szymanowski’s piano works, remembered the composer becoming irate when he flirted with a young woman: “I saw hatred and jealousy in his eyes,” wrote Rubenstein. And Szymanowski’s librettist for “King Roger” recalled the composer’s morning rituals as “a ceremony similar to the grand lever of Louis XIV,” with an “exceptionally fine collection” of toiletries, perfumes and “special brushes and pastes,” which means nothing, though it sounds like code for a dandyism that transgressed gender norms.