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Desert fox

Karol Szymanowski’s 1926 King Roger was the sleeper hit of SFO’s season, not so much for its weird, mystical theme and feeble libretto but because the music is powerfully effective and Evan Rogister handled the shimmering, richly expressionistic orchestral writing with consummate skill. The choral writing is ravishing, especially the ecclesiastical Russian-sounding opening movement that emerges from the stark sounds of bells and gongs.  

The composer was fascinated by the crossroads culture of Sicily, so he fashioned (along with Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz) a libretto centered on the real-life King Roger II, the 12th century Norman ruler of Sicily, drawing also on Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae. The plot is simple: a shepherd arrives at court dispensing a hippie philosophy of love and freedom. He worships a god sporting a wreath of ivy and a bunch grapes (hint!). Roger’s wife drinks the Kool Aid right away, but Roger is in a funk, whether over his marriage or his kingly duties, and he instinctively rejects the shepherd, though he too is strangely drawn to this charismatic figure.

Director Stephen Wadsworth handled the plotless work with attention to precise, intense physical placement and clarity of movement. As the shepherd messes with Roger’s head, the king slowly sheds his crown, plush red-gold robe and black business suit, and his billowy white shirt is literally ripped off him. There are laughably lame libretto lines, and after a while stuff like “his eyes are like stars” and “I come from the smile of the stars in the southern sky,” and “whoever would be free follow me now to the grove’s sweet shade” made me wonder why Wadsworth didn’t just set the whole thing in Haight-Ashbury, summer of ’67.

Mariusz Kwiecen has been championing the piece recently (there’s the Polish thing, the star baritone thing, the probing actor thing), and he jumped into the piece with intensity and commitment. Although Roger eventually became a tiresome downer staring at the floor, Kwiecen blazed through the music, and finally got his happy moment body-surfing through a crowd of Roger’s blissed-out subjects.

As the golden, youthful, charismatic stranger, William Burden looked a tad long-in-the-tooth, but he exuded controlled confidence with a serene, open countenance, measured gait and penetrating gaze. The shepherd’s music lies high, and unfolds in long lyrical garlands that Burden sang with gentle sweetness. Erin Morley sounded clear and lovely in the role of Roger’s wife Roxana, but she was covered much of the time by the orchestra. Dennis Petersen brought full, ringing sound to the role of Edrisi, Roger’s scholarly Arab confidant.

Roger eventually evolves and has his moment of ecstasy, greeting the sun in a splendid finale of transformation. You pick the theme: an Apollonian versus Dionysian outlook, the conflict between spirit and flesh, a mystical journey from darkness to light, the exploration by a man in a “traditional marriage” of his bisexual nature. Not knowing what the work is about is part of experiencing King Roger. Next year’s Oscar, a new work for SFO by Theodore Morrison, based on the life of Oscar Wilde, probably won’t be so quite so enigmatic.

Maometto Secondo was a hit as well, more a credit to Rossini’s rich, architecturally ambitious score than to David Alden’s staging, inoffensive as it was. Philip Gossett and the usual scholarly suspects have published a new critical edition of the score, composed in 1820 for Naples, later revised for Venice, and then turned into Le Siège de Corinthe for Paris. The east versus west, love versus duty plot centers around the Venetian noblewoman Anna and her love for “Uberto,” who turns out to be the enemy invader Maometto.

John Morrell’s basic grey set featured random bits of antique statuary and carvings (including what looked like a huge towel rack), stairways, slide-away paintings, and a breakaway wall for Maometto’s sensational entrance. The walls served an important function, with the singers constantly backing into sweet spots to bounce the voice.

The costumes were dark and weird, there was a gymnastic Ninja ballet with twirling spears, and a huge hovering red triangle represented Maometto’s tent, so that “Anna, tu piangi” appeared to be taking place inside a giant harpsichord. There were scimitars and golden armor, a voodoo skull carrier who turned into a hoochie-koochie dancer, and a three-horse contraption that drew Maometto backwards for an embarrassingly lame exit. But considering David Alden, it could have been so much worse.

The music is splendid, and it was difficult to tell what was new or reconstructed, if you know the Scimone/Ramey/Anderson (or Gasdia) performances. The great trios– “Ohimè, qual fulmine,” “Mira, signor, quel pianto,” “Giusto ciel, che strazio,” and “In questi estremi istanti”—were intact, and all those imitative entries gave the audience a chance to compare everyone’s vocal technique. Not everyone passed.

As a Rossinian, SFO musical director Frédéric Chaslin didn’t impress (but his Puccini was equally undistinguished). There was little detail in the orchestral texture, in spite of excellent solo wind playing, and he pounded through connecting passages, trying to generate excitement.

Only tenor Bruce Sledge had full command of Rossini’s florid, rangy, accented style. He sounded suitably fatherly as Anna’s father, the Venetian commander Paolo Erisso with a sound both sweet and dark, and even throughout his large range. A how about a shout-out to apprentice tenor Matthew Newlin, who brought pungency and focus to the first scene’s Condulmiero.

Sluggish tempos accommodated the rest of the cast. In the knock-out role of Anna, Leah Crocetto struggled with the fioritura and lacked thrust and vocal edge for moments like the stretto “Dicesti assai, t’intendo.” The well-known Preghiera “Giusto ciel, in tal periglio” suited her better and was limpidly sung, but poorly-chosen ornaments marred the second verse. The voice is deliciously sweet, if short on mettle, and she managed the final scene, especially the slow, curving “Madre a te,” sung pianissimo, with grace and fluidity.

In the trouser role, Patricia Bardon was short on both bottom and top, so Calbo’s many dramatic vaults failed. She muscled through the big aria “Non temer d’un basso affetto” with screeching high Bs and plenty of nerve, but if you’ve heard Marilyn Horne sing this, well, never mind.

Luca Pisaroni was a disappointing Maometto, with labored coloratura (it didn’t help that Chaslin often set too perky a tempo) and high notes that just didn’t ring. His sound opened up as the evening progressed, and the second act aria showed more thunder and vitality, but Pisaroni’s performance needed a much bigger and bolder execution.

Photos: Ken Howard

27 comments

  • dallasuapace says:

    Thanks for the review.

    I hope nobody minds my saying this, but to me SFO is San Francisco Opera. Of course I realize you are talking about Santa Fe here.

    • Camille says:

      Thanks again, Lee. This was a near-miss for me and have been interested in the various reactions.

      Dallasuapace--me too--always think SFO refers to San Francisco. My method is to try to write SFeO for Santa Fe, as often as possible, hoping others will pick it up as I did from another. Pass it on!

    • RosinaLeckermaul says:

      You must have caught MAOMETTO II on an off night. When I heard it Crocetto and Pisaroni were superb, sailing through the coloratura. Bardon got all the notes, but it wasn’t pretty. I agree that Chaislin seemed to be no great shakes as a conductor compared to Rogister or Andrew Davis, who conducted a lovely ARABELLA

  • Hans Lick says:

    You are there!

    Well, I wasn’t there, dang it, but thanks to M. Ahmo, I feel as if I had been, though I AM SORRY to have missed the big and bright stars at night over high New Mexico.

    Ahmo has certainly estimated King Roger objectively and correctly: Nice try, Karol; try again, heh? And having indeed heard Horne with Anderson and Ramey in M2 in SF, I feel privileged anew. But I really want to catch it in Istanbul sometime; this opera about the most beloved (at a safe distance of 550 years) of Ottoman sultans is very popular at the festival there.

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      Hans, that was not Ramey but the brief-primed Simone Alaimo who was Maometto in San Francisco.

  • matthewnewlin says:

    Thank you for the shout-out!

  • la vociaccia says:

    I must listen to King Roger now. I’ve liked everything I’ve ever heard of Szymanowski, -- his violin concerto is especially tasty.

    Maybe a Met production with Beczala, Kurzak..food for thought. I’ll take something like this over another frickin Carmen revival

    • m. croche says:

      The First Violin Concerto is indeed a marvel of sticky arcadianism. It also ends quietly (still a very unusual thing to do in a concerto of the period). The Second Violin Concerto too has remarkable things, including the quarter-tones that Bartok studied for use in his subsequent Second Violin Concerto.

    • bang_bang_bang says:

      Well, there’s a chance for King Roger at the Met. Kwiecien said in one of his interviews (to the polish press, I’m Polish, so I am pretty up to date) that he tries to convince Gelb to produce King Roger in NY and Gelb is very positive about this. Kwiecien sounds reliable to me, but I hardly can imagine Szymanowski at the Met.

    • Tristan_und says:

      I think a Met production of King Roger would need more than food for thought: it would take an effing miracle! I love the piece, but it will NEVER be produced at the Met, at least, not in my lifetime and I should have another 20 years to go anyway…

  • sfmike says:

    That photo of Mariusz is about as sexy as it gets. And yes, more King Roger, please and the suggestion of Beczala as the beautiful shepherd sounds perfect.

  • m. croche says:

    I can understand why the high-faggotry of King Roger might seem overblown to some contemporary sensibilities. But I think the condescending treatment meted out here to Iwaszkiewicz is unwarranted. Iwaszkiewicz is a significant figure in 20th-century Polish literature (a pretty starry group in its own right). It’s quite unfair to judge the quality of Iwaszkiewicz’s poetic diction on the basis of an English translation of unknown provenance.

    To provide a contrasting assessment of the poet’s gifts, let me cite Czeslaw Milosz:

    {Iwaszkiewicz’s] early poems puzzled everybody by strangely combining the technique of an ironic madrigal with a rush of colors and sounds. In this, Iwaszkiewicz resembled some “Young Poland” poets such as Micinski; there was also a touch of Wilde’s aestheticism and of Russian symbolism. “Octostichs” (“Oktostychy”, 1919) was a daring experiment with metrics and assonance. “Dionysiacs”, (“Dionizje”, 1922) was, perhaps, the only truly expressionistic volume of poems published in Poland after World War I. In these poems, the myth of Dionysos, so crucial for European literature of the turn of the century, found a violent, very personal expression, for it was deeply engrained in Iwaszkiewicz’s personality, in his internal conflicts and in his eroticism. Fantastic, musical landscapes of colors, wild and unexpected breaks in rhythm, dissonant tones of ferocity and sweetness in this volume destined Iwaszkiewicz to be a “poet’s poet” and, thus, less popular with the public than others of his group. But none of them could rival his voracity for color and his ability to re-create an aura of once-seen but half-forgotten, almost magical, lands and cities. Although reproached for his intuitionist, nonintellectual, and non-social art [Milosz was writing this while Marxist aesthetics still held sway in his native land] he fascinated several younger poets. With his early publications he had already left a mark upon the history of Polish poetry. (Czeslaw Milosz, “The History of Polish Literature”)

    • Belfagor says:

      This is, as usual, fascinating M.Croche, and opens up a whole world of investigating to do -- even if my Polish lacks polish……

      But returning to King Roger, the opera, I don’t think the problem with it is to do with the libretto per se, but it is in fact the music -- that glorious, opulent, music, which, moment to moment, is so beguiling. For an opera that is supposed to be a journey from the Apollonian to the Dionysian, apart from the gravely beautiful opening, highlighted in Lee B. Ahmo’s concise and perceptive account, the music rushes headlong into a sensual Dionysian bath within minutes of curtain up, and stays there -- all Szymanowski can do (and this is the besetting problem with all of his music) is get louder and louder and more frenzied, so that we are not really taken on any sort of a journey, which seems to be the point of the libretto: we just don’t hear the repressed king unbuckle himself and find release. I adored this opera when I was a student, but when I last heard it live, in a concert perf in London about 20 years ago, I gave up half way through Act 2, which seemed to me to get more and more overwritten. The last act provides some relief, and the final moments are wonderful -- even though I find the very final cadence odd and somewhat premature…….I mean, how many musico-tantric orgasms can you take within a 75 minute span?

      • m. croche says:

        I’m broadly sympathetic with your difficulties with Szymanowski’s music for the opera, Belfagor. Thank heavens the work is only 90 minutes long -- were it to go on for four hours, audience and performers would be advised to seek medical attention.

        That said, I still have a lot of respect for an opera that pursues its idiosyncratic vision with such single-minded intensity. As a piece of conventional musical theater, it is flawed. But as an attempt to make “decadence” life-affirming (instead of Todgeweihtes), the opera is a really interesting document of early 20th-century gay culture. I’m glad its out there and being performed, even if I’m not in the mood every day to listen to it.

        • Belfagor says:

          I would concur with that exactly, M.Croche! And I am hoping that I will be able to be in London in the next season or two, when I believe the Royal Opera will mount a production -- presumably with its new advocate-ambassador Mariusz……

          • m. croche says:

            Happily, Iwaszkiewicz’s “Dionizje” is downloadableoff the internet. One of the poems, “Bielany” (a district in Warsaw, but also “Robes of White”) opens with a musical theme:

            Dzien caly czytam futuryzje
            I glupio gram Rachmaninova.
            Zeszlej jesieni zgarniam wizje
            I ciagle wiem, co rok ten schowal

            Which I might roughly translate as:

            The whole day I read futurists
            And dully played Rachmaninoff.
            The past autumn’s visions I gather,
            Knowing the year will cart them off.

          • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

            “I believe the Royal Opera will mount a production – presumably with its new advocate-ambassador Mariusz……”

            Shame! What of Dazeley?????

          • Regina delle fate says:

            Dazely doesn’t sing regularly at Covent Garden and certainly not in title roles. He may have sung Schaunard or Morales there, but basically he’s considered a star only at Opera North in Leeds which is probably the UK equivalent of Opera Theatre of St Louis. The Royal Opera is indeed staging a Kasper Holten production of Krol Roger in 2014. Kwiecien would be the optimal casting but just as possible is the American baritone Scott Hendricks who sang the part to acclaim in Bregenz. It’s highly unlikely that the RO will cast a star in the charismatic role of the shepherd. Kurzak as Roxana is at least a possibility as she is already more or less an annual fixture at the RO, even though more usually to be heard in bel canto roles than pure lyric ones.

          • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

            “It’s highly unlikely that the RO will cast a star in the charismatic role of the shepherd.”

            What about Our Own Wiccan scholar Ian Bostridge? *Matchless* charisma.

            He could climb under pianos, scowl at the audience, take down the high notes by a fifth…

          • PushedUpMezzo says:

            All this talk of high-faggotry (one t or two, Vicar?) has made me eager for the ROH production. Hope they use the “strapping” dancers from Les Troyens and McVicar’s Executioner.

          • Camille says:

            Hahahahaha , Vicar, you are so funny! Casting the Wiccan scholar is sheer GENIUS!!!

          • Regina delle fate says:

            Ian Bostridge? Another singer who hardly ever sings at Covent Garden, but never mind. He sang Vasek when they did Bartered Bride at Sadlers Wells, Quint in Turn of the Screw and Don Ottavio (twice). He’s a star at the Wigmore Hall, but they don’t put on King Roger.

  • Arianna a Nasso says:

    Is our beloved Mariusz shaving his chest these days? If so, what a pity! When will this madness end???

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Arianna -- thanks for reminding us of the things that really matter on this site! :)