Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Kings of Desire

July 22, 2012

Mariusz Kwiecien and William Burden Photo by Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is one of those operas that upon hearing it for the first time you are perplexed as to why you haven’t heard it many times before. Szymanowski was not unaware or unimpressed with the musical developments around him in the early 20th Century, but the conservative elements in his native Poland’s musical establishment placed pressure on him in opposition to more avant-garde forces. King Roger can sound lushly romantic, but it is decidedly modern, in its beautiful, rich, sonorous sound wall. The work has gained increasing popularity in recent years and its reputation continues to grow. There are challenges to its acceptance besides the Polish language element: the story is somewhat strange and obtuse, and it’s got some challenging choral work as well. In the libretto, a 12th Century Norman King of Sicily, King Roger, finds himself in the pull of a battle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces as a local Shepherd slowly erodes the sober faith of his people and queen with the promise of hedonistic love. The story is abstract and filled with ideological debate that would have made Jung proud. That Santa Fe Opera is presenting this challenging beauty this season in a production as well done as this one is a testament to the company’s breadth musically and theatrically. Despite some minor issues, this King Roger is an enchantment all on its own in the New Mexico summer desert.

Let me sing the praises of the musical team. Evan Rogister conducted the Santa Fe Opera orchestra through a very dense score with wonderful control and precision. The amount of time put into this sounds great especially when you consider Szymanowski’s beautiful choral work. The first 20 minutes of the show are stunning, and the chorus rose above all expectations with an exceptional performance. Of course, their starring cast didn’t let them down. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has made a specialty of this role and championed the opera. Santa Fe rightly jumped at the chance to have one of the world’s biggest stars come out west, and it pays off big time. He’s magnetic and the entire struggle over Roger’s spirituality plays out exquisitely in his face and voice. He’s spectacular, and not just because he’s shirtless and gives the muscle bound extras of Act III a run for their money. Tenor William Burden sings the part of the Shepherd and sounds like a perfect fit in this most Dionysian of roles. He’s bright and youthful and enticing exactly when he should be. But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer of the night was the bright, warm soprano of Erin Morley who sings Roxana, Roger’s queen. She pierces through all of the male voices and big orchestration but never with a blunt disservice to the whole. She’s as seductive as anything in this opera about giving ones self over to the sensual world.

Perhaps the weakest part of the show is Stephen Wadsworth’s prosaic, bland staging. He does manage to give principles ample room to move and clear guidance for their interactions. But visually the show is flat, eschewing nearly everything about the unique beauty of the Santa Fe open stage in favor of a single barren throne room with a flat painted sectional backdrop that is about as inoffensive as the décor in a dental office. Perhaps most concerning is the clichéd contrast between the Edwardian costuming of Roger and his people in the opening act to denote a restraint or conservatism that gives way to something out of an old Herb Ritts music video. It may be modern-ish dress, but it isn’t modern-ish thinking. Luckily the staging stays out of the way when it comes to the performance overall and allows the musical forces to show off all their hard work. That part is a thriller and it makes King Roger a clear highlight of the current Santa Fe season. The show runs through August 14.



I thought the staging was fabulous and the acting performances specific and luminous!
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