'King Roger,' A Confounding Object of Desire

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The great 20th-century Polish opera "King Roger" is not about some great Polish king named Roger. It is not about much of anything at all, in the traditional narrative sense, but it unfolds as a series of sumptuous religious and regal tableaux. It is almost never staged and is only occasionally heard in concert or on recordings.

Opera lovers mostly resign themselves to secondhand encounters with such works -- famous for being marginal, spoken of reverently by legions who have never encountered them. But on Friday, the Bard SummerScape festival opened a production of the 1926 opera that is billed as its professional stage debut in the United States. The world wasn't exactly beating down the door to see it -- there were a lot of empty seats, though the audience was enthusiastic -- but for serious opera lovers, it is an event.

Although Karol Szymanowski's opera was written in the aftermath of World War I (when other composers were making music of despair and social dissolution), it follows a very prewar narrative line of poetic longing and spiritual decadence, articulated in faded symbolism and threadbare allusion.

The Roger of the title is king of medieval Sicily, an enlightened despot in a dark age, who suffers from very modern psycho-sexual crises, tempted to Dionysian excess by a mysterious prophet from the East. It's hard not to understand the whole thing -- its thrillingly fervid torrents of densely woven and dissonant lyricism, its oddly tortured and vague plot -- as a rudimentary map of the composer's own religious and erotic life.

It was an inspired choice to pick Polish film director Lech Majewski to direct it. (Majewski was the subject of an astoundingly rich retrospective last summer at the National Gallery.) Film directors (Werner Herzog, Ken Russell) have worked in the opera house before with mixed results. It's not a panacea for opera's traditionally lousy dramatic presentation to call in a rescue from the ranks of cinema. But Majewski isn't just a film director -- he's a widely rounded artist, with serious credentials as a novelist and visual artist. He is probably the only director to work in the opera house who also composed his own opera. ("The Roe's Room" is a charming if basic foray into musical minimalism.) Expectations were high for Majewski's first major appearance as an opera director in this country.

And they were mostly frustrated. "King Roger" is a fabulous score -- think Igor Stravinsky, Leos Janacek and Hollywood stewed together -- but a very difficult drama. Majewski's ideas were often intelligent but untheatrical, and he didn't quite manage to do what may be impossible: make this opera hold the stage.

"King Roger" has only three scenes, all dominated by its uptight, emotionally vacant, spiritually arid eponymous character. In the first, Roger (sung with commanding dignity by baritone Adam Kruszewski) encounters a beautiful young shepherd, who has been leading the people of Sicily astray, promising them a new religion of radiant sensuality and abandon. In the second, the king confronts the shepherd again, in a spiritual and legal trial that the king loses, only to see his wife (sung by soprano Iwona Hossa with a powerful, clear voice, and distracting pauses for breath) and his people follow the young man into Bacchic abandon. In the third, the king, now a pilgrim himself, undergoes some hard-to-decipher spiritual awakening, while wandering in the night in a ruined Greek amphitheater.

One way to pump some vitality into this rather vague spiritual drama is to borrow clues from Szymanowski's own life. The Rosetta stone here is the composer's sexuality. He was fairly openly homosexual, in the way that wealthy and aristocratic men could be in the late-19th and early-20th century -- hiding mundane desires beneath poetic turns of phrase and vague imputations of decadence.

Which pretty much describes the libretto of "King Roger," a collaboration between the composer and his cousin, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. The shepherd, presented by Majewski (with considerable justification in the libretto) as a prophet with Siva arms from India or beyond, is also described as "a youth with copper curls." The king's wife, Roxana, has the same name as Alexander the Great's wife, frequently depicted as a hapless figure in the emperor's determinedly homoerotic romp across the ancient world and Central Asia. The stage directions, and Szymanowski's ravishingly overheated music, suggest that the king is mesmerized by the shepherd's beauty and annoyed by his wife's emotional independence.

But Majewski chose not to emphasize the homoerotic angle, which is to take a huge bet on a risky proposition: that you can remove the subterranean sex motif from "King Roger" and still have something left that makes any sense in the 21st century. Szymanowski's shepherd is not just beautiful but very forward, confronting the king and advertising his own sexiness with the self-confidence of a two-bit model on reality TV.

Majewski's shepherd, sung by Tadeusz Szlenkier (a young tenor studying at the Yale School of Music), was a doughy figure, lost in his own world of groovy hand gestures and flowing arms. The shepherd's music is punishing, a series of plaintive cries, set rather high in the voice, which might, if perfectly done, create a sense of epicene and otherworldly beauty. Szlenkier had firm control of the vocal line, but it was a powerful, muscular approach. It may not be possible to make this difficult part sound as sensual as it must have in Szymanowski's febrile inner ear.

Majewski, who designed the sets and costumes, also made some small miscalculations. One scene contrasted fire with water -- a wise emphasis on one of the many essential dualities that define the philosophical world of the opera -- but the water dripping from a large, inverted cone throughout the second act simply made too much noise. And the brilliantly bright light that obscured the king during his final transcendent greeting of the dawn at the end of the opera was aimed directly into the audience's eyes -- a powerful gesture that has been used before, and too often, by other stage directors.

But it was not a wasted evening. The Wroclaw Opera Chorus was magnificent, and a major player in an opera that includes religious ceremonies and communal reveling. The American Symphony Orchestra rendered all the prismatic colors of Szymanowski's score, from individual soloists to the collective force of the opera's powerful climactic gestures. Conductor Leon Botstein, the powerful mind but erratic musical guide that gives this festival a reputation for uneven quality, actually managed to keep the music together throughout much of the evening.

And yet, for all that, one left still fascinated by the elusive figure of Szymanowski. Like the Czech Janacek and the Romanian Georges Enescu, he was a major figure from a minor place, and his music remains perpetually ready for the big time without ever quite getting there. The major musical battles of the last century are long gone, and the dead and wounded all but forgotten. And yet so many operatic voices, pushed to the sidelines by the wars over tonality and theatrical and philosophical alienation, have yet to be rehabilitated.

Szymanowski's "King Roger" will probably remain a difficult but tantalizing case of lost art. On one level, it is superficial to suggest that the composer's sexuality explains everything. On another level, it's not clear that the opera is anything more than a magnificently colored cloak cast over the open secret of Szymanowski's sexual desires. The farther we push on from the bad old days of dandified aristocrats diddling young men just under the radar of society's disapproval, the more strangely orphaned works such as "King Roger" may seem.

And yet, there is always the music, which functions more and more like the antiquated music of old-fashioned religious rites or the patriotic musical fantasies of countries lost to history. It is an aural trace, a fossil in sound, a reminder of human feelings no longer particularly relevant to the contemporary situation. But it would be a shame to lose them.

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