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The Santa Fe Opera’s most modern sounding offering this season is Polish composer Szymanowski’s “King Roger.”
The piece premiered in 1926, which doesn’t make it the most recently written, but it is years away from the others, in regard to its structure and subject matter.
Szymanowski’s opera is gorgeous and intense, beginning with a choral mass.
The costumes are detailed and sumptuous at first, but as the opera progresses, the costumes shift in the opposite direction to depict the shift in the realm due to the influence of the mysterious Shepherd, who comes in and encourages everyone to follow him to lead a life of pleasure.
At first, the King’s frenzied subjects — including the Archbishop and Deaconess, sung by Raymond Aceto and Laura Wilde — want King Roger to kill the Shepherd. Eventually, even Roxana abandons the King, who is attracted to the Shepherd, but conflicted by his ideas of right and wrong.
The King ends up abandoned by all but Edrisi, his advisor, a role sung quite effectively by Dennis Petersen.
Mariusz Kwiecien has completely absorbed the role of King Roger. His despair seems real and he beautifully conveys his love for his wife and discomfort over his feelings about the Shepherd to the audience.
His comfort level with this difficult piece is immediately apparent. He changes the color of his rich baritone as he goes along — this puts a nice emphasis on his mood in the different sections of the piece.
In addition, Kwiecien has amazing chemistry with his colleagues.
William Burden is a bright, happy Shepherd, almost glowing with a sense of peace, despite the crowd’s desire in the beginning, to see him killed. His voice is a great foil for the voice of the King, being brilliant as well as relaxed while the King sounds dark and brooding.
Erin Morley portrays Roxana, the wayward wife of King Roger. At times, the orchestra overtakes her voice, but this is not too troublesome, as most times the orchestra is at a minimum to let the coloratura passages really shine.
Her song in the courtyard in the second part is stunning and her youthfulness and ease are good counterparts for the heavy conflict with which the King seems to be burdened.
This is a complex piece, with sound progressing from church music to more chromatic music. The audience won’t leave the theater humming catchy tunes.
Instead, they may leave wanting to hear it all again, because there are so many musical layers to this piece that it’s hard to catch everything. This allegorical story is moving, but may be a bit difficult for children to understand. Although there is nothing inappropriate about the piece, the lack of a real melody for the ears to hang on to and the “Dionysian dance” may be a bit much for them to grasp.
All in all however, for those who want a new experience, this is a rich, interesting piece that is worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.