August 2, 2012 at 3:55 PM

Santa Fe Opera Review: ‘King Roger’

" 'Roger' explores the ages-old conflict between head and heart , a/k/a Apollonian restraint versus Dionysian abandon"

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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I seldom would advise anyone to skip a Santa Fe Opera production, but that’s the case with Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger” – for a certain set of opera lovers, that is.

If you prefer easy art, hummable melodies and an operatic experience fed you with a sugared spoon, then don’t even think of going. You’ll have a miserable time. But if you love intense theater, amazing (and complex) musical craftsmanship, and are willing to open yourself up to a visceral performance experience, then go. Go twice. It will be worth it.

“Roger” explores the ages-old conflict between head and heart , a/k/a Apollonian restraint versus Dionysian abandon. The story shows interesting parallels with Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” in that it presents a seductive stranger who comes into a kingdom of established order and proceeds to wreak havoc with – or, if you like, set free – the citizenry. The ruler of said kingdom doesn’t take easily to this, but there’s where the story splits.

In Euripides, King Pentheus’s rage against the interloper is turned into sweet madness by the visitor, who (can’t you guess?) turns out to be Dionysus himself. So when Pentheus goes to spy on the crazed Theban women in the mountains, they t- led by his own mother, Agave - tear him to pieces. In the Szymanowski, Roger loses his subjects to the divine frenzy, but himself achieves a certain balance he lacked before. All this happens in 90 minutes of unremitting intensity. Even softer moments are tense—a drawing-back of the bowstring before another arrow of emotional realization shoots into one’s heart.

The July 25 performance I attended was both first-rate and almost unbearably riveting. In the title role, Mariusz Kwiecien commanded the stage magnificently: when Roger was depressed or unsure, Kwiecien projected a sense of uncertainty so strong it seemed to hover over him like a black cloud; when angry or ecstatic, his projection was just as powerful. He sang like a king, and often like a god, and fit into the excellent production (overseen by astute director Stephen Wadsworth) like the keystone into an arch.

William Burden astonished as the shepherd with a message, singing with an open- throated yet bucolic sound that perfectly reflected his god of groves and gladness. Erin Morley’s attentive, beautifully sung Roxana supplied melting sound and emotional tenderness, while Dennis Petersen made much of the dramatically demanding role of Edrisi, Roger’s advisor. The Santa Fe Desert Chorale joined the SFO apprentice artists to deliver an immensely scaled yet cohesive reading of the huge chorus parts in the first act, from chanted prayers to cries for the shepherd’s blood.

Evan Rogister manipulated the orchestra with craft and earnestness. He encouraged the players to command every dynamic and interpretative nuance in the complex score: at one moment he soaked the theater with implacable waves of sound like a thundering downpour, at another he coaxed out sonic threads like the fleetest of spring showers.

From my seat, the voices often disappeared into the orchestral web even at their most powerful, and the singers seemed just to be moving their lips sometimes even in softer passages. True, Szymanowski appears to have considered the voices as additional colorful lines within the sound-world he erected, but it would have been nice not to have to strain to pick out a vocal line.

Those who like a neatly wrapped-up ending may think King Roger ends ambiguously, but it really doesn’t. Yes, Roger rejects the Shepherd’s invitation to open himself up fully to his joyful, mindless, animal side—but he doesn’t return completely to the rigid trappings of law and religion that constricted him so early on. He accepts the shepherd’s offered crown of greenery, and wears the wreath with naked torso and arms open to the wind and rain.

But he also joyfully wraps himself in the regal cloak of responsibility he wore in the first and second acts; and his last words are a paean to the rising sun that brings life and light to the whole word. A man once straitjacketed by his own doubts and fears has found new confidence in himself as a union of opposites – and he has balanced the competing demands of both mind and heart. Would that we all could say that.

King Roger repeats at 8 p.m. August 3, 9 and 14. Call 505-986-5900 or visit www.santafeopera.org.

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