Santa Fe Opera with Tight-Packed Psychodrama 

<>                                              By Paul Hertelendy 
        artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
                                                                 Week of Aug. 6-13, 2012
                                                                  Vol. 15, No. 4
            SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO---Among the great surprises of the summer is the remarkable Polish psychodrama "King Roger" (1926), where mass obsession overtakes a kingdom, and ultimately the heroic king himself.

            The music by Karol Szymanowski is original and individualistic, embodying the tonal nebulousness to match the drama; it is thoroughly listenable. Stylistically, it probably stands closest to Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle," with suggestions of Debussy and early Ravel. It pits King Roger against an evangelist who worships nature and has his own style of God allowing orgies and other great excesses. This modernized Dionysus totally seduces Roger's kingdom, drawing off even the king's spouse Roxana with his mesmerizing messages of reveling in nature and forgetting all cares.

            The moral is of  hysteria and mesmerization overtaking a nation, a message that reverberates, whether we speak of Hitler, Mussolini or Mao.

            It's uncertain whether the composer wanted to show quasi-reality or fantasy---or something between. But it's a morality tale if you see the Shepherd (evangelist) as a charlatan whose silver-tongued oratory captivates all, drawing them into the cult.

            Stage Director Stephen Wadsworth very convincingly manipulates the characters, where each encounter with the Shepherd further fortifies his seductive magnetism. The latter single-handedly converts a stable kingdom steeped in tradition, ritual, and religious fervor into a hedonistic chaos. It concludes with either the king dying (the official version), or the revitalized king turned sun-worshipper, formally converted to the Shepherd's flock (Wadsworth's version). Wadsworth's deft (if controversial) subtle shift of ending alters a tragedy into a myth about rebirth and revitalization, but with unsalutary implications.

            The focal title role is played forcefully by the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecen (pronounce it k-WISH-en), who writhes, frets, and frantically embraces others in his decline and fall. The nemesis Shepherd---an astute manipulator, anything but a peasant---is done in a near-falsetto tenor by William Burden. Soprano Erin Morley plays the Queen Roxana hesitantly.

            Conductor Evan Register illuminated the score, making a convincing case for this compact piece to be presented in a much wider context. The fact it hasn't may be attributable to the difficulties of the Polish language, with which few singers in America are familiar. This is an opera to see and hear, the perfect antidote to the windy opuses all too frequent.

            'ROGER' NOTES,  ZERO-EGO CONDUCTORS, TRENDS---This is the third company I have seen in the past month with the innovation of having a conductor enter silently, almost unnoticed, with no spotlight, no applause. Is this the new trend??....The Santa Fe Opera is using demand pricing, reset for each work. Sitting in roughly the same section, my four opera tickets ran $203, $183, $135 and $118, with "Arabella" and "Pearl-Fishers" at the top and bottom. Another new national  trend?? Overall, Santa Fe’s single ticket range this season was $32 to a stiff $245.

            Santa Fe Opera in Szymanowski's "King Roger," in Polish, with English translations. No intermissions. Opera House, Santa Fe, NM through Aug. 14. For info: (505) 986-5900, or go online
        ©Paul Hertelendy 2012

           Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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