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.
Today, all of this is rather quaint, and to Wadsworth’s credit, the Santa Fe production went well beyond the low-hanging interpretive fruit of mere homosexuality. Alert to the complexities of the libretto, Wadsworth emphasized the complicated and ambiguous relation of Roger to his wife, Roxana (sung with great clarity and focus by soprano Erin Morley), who succumbs to the mysterious theology and personal allure of the Shepherd early in the drama. The Shepherd, described in the libretto as “a youth with copper curls,” was sung by tenor William Burden, with a voice that exuded plaintive emotional urgency. But Burden is not a youth with copper curls — there are no such tenors available with the vocal strength to sing this challenging role — and the director wisely chose to underscore an almost paternal (or in religious terms, pastoral) relationship between the king and his tempter.
The result, which in an earlier age might have seemed a willful enforcement of what is now called “heteronormative” orthodoxy, was a richer and more evocative sense of both the opera’s complexity, and the complexity of Szymanowski’s inner life. Wadsworth’s production, and the absolute, thrilling commitment of baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, elevated the opera to the level of other essential works of the period, including Bartok’s “Blue Beard’s Castle” and Strauss’s “Elektra,” and with luck it will help finally secure “King Roger” a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.
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Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 to well-to-do parents who belonged to the Polish-speaking minor gentry of Ukraine. His childhood was steeped in art and music, and by 1900 he had produced his Op. 1 piano preludes, delicate, inventive works with an obvious debt to his compatriot Chopin, though harmonically thoroughly modern. Before the First World War he traveled widely to the musical capitals of Europe, also visiting Sicily, the setting of “King Roger” and a cultural stew of Christian and Islamic influences. Travels in North Africa further widened his musical palette.
Musically, he absorbed and ultimately exorcised the profound influence of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin, developing a distinctive harmonically restless language that often orbits obsessively around a few, highly individual chord clusters. His mazurkas, a classic Polish dance, almost seem to dance in place, like small quasars of musical energy collapsing on themselves. His ballet “Harnasie” suggests he could have held his own in Hollywood, while his Symphony No. 4 has the Wedgwood clarity of a classical piano concerto. He was also one of the greatest orchestrators of his day, eliciting from the orchestra novel sounds that even today will make close listeners do a double take.
It’s hard to account for the astonishing change in the composer’s name recognition, from the early part of the last century, when he was heralded as an indubitably great composer, to today, when he remains doggedly obscure. A 1922 Musical Quarterly survey of his work declared his 1909-1910 Second Symphony “the finest flower in the field of symphonic music in its day,” and compared his Second Piano Sonata to the ultimate touchstone: “If Beethoven had written a piano sonata in 1910, he would have written it in the same way.” Szymanowski was a major fixture in Polish intellectual life between the wars, famous enough to appear (in lightly disguised form) in the monumental Polish novel of his day, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s “Insatiability.”
Although Polish pianists have kept his music alive, for much of the last century Szymanowski’s most important work, “King Roger,” has languished. It’s tempting to believe that part of the problem was the work’s eroticism, but the challenges posed by “King Roger” are far deeper than that. It is ambiguous and impenetrable at a level that transcends other seemingly thorny, symbolically dense operas of the age. Unlike the works of Strauss, or Bartok’s “Blue Beard’s Castle,” King Roger is relentlessly unresolved and morally opaque. Critics have had little doubt, over the years, that the central character is a cipher for Szymanowski himself, but there’s little agreement about what particular crisis or crises are being explored.
There are multiple possibilities. The opera began to take form in 1918, while Szymanowski was reeling from the destruction of his family’s estate by the Bolsheviks. Work on the piece continued for six more years, as Poland became independent and Szymanowski emerged as the obvious musical leader of the new republic. The composer’s style went through a profound change after “King Roger,” with the exoticism and violent energy suppressed within a more classical, refined style. One scholar has suggested that “King Roger” isn’t just a drama about resisting sensuality, but a personal farewell to the voluptuous: “Like the hero of his opera, he has to resist the siren-like calls of the East when he assumed the role of Poland’s leading nationalist composer,” writes Szymanowsk scholar Alistair Wightman.
So as much as “King Roger” seems to be about an uptight king threatened by a young man who embodies all the sexual license he desires and resists, it is about other tensions, too: Authority and freedom, logic and irrationalism, self-restraint and liberation, and the composer’s “inner landscape” vs. his sense of civic and national responsibility.
The Santa Fe production allowed many of these tensions to emerge, alongside the obvious homoeroticism of the libretto. At moments of crisis, Kwiecien clutched desperately at his regal robes, retreating to the dubious safety of power and position. The stage design, by Thomas Lynch, referenced the opera’s first act setting in a church in Sicily, but became progressively more abstract, as the tensions and divisions felt by the king became more philosophical, more about an emotional and spiritual incoherence than a simple argument between propriety and forbidden desire.
And, taking a small but justifiable liberty with the score, Kwiecien held his last note longer than written, projecting a clarion sound through the orchestra’s final, and enormous crescendo. The effect was almost a shouting to the winds, a triumphant suggestion that Roger has finally learned something, integrated something into his personality. If the opera is seen as essentially a veiled parable of sexuality, Szymanowski’s ending — in which the king rejects the Dionysian ecstasies of the Shepherd — is disappointing, a renunciation or “re-closeting” of the king.
But Kwiecien’s vocal abandon on this last note wasn’t just musically thrilling, it positioned the opera for a post-homophobic age. Homoeroticism isn’t denied, but rather subsumed into a larger, more complicated and moving sense of the king’s journey of self-discovery. If for decades now it has been necessary to reclaim and dignify the hidden-in-plain-sight sexuality of homosexual artists of the past century or more, this production of “King Roger” allows it to be simply one fact among many. It is part of the picture, not the elephant in the room.