Review: Mariusz Kwiecien in Reverential, Resplendent “King Roger” – Santa Fe Opera, August 3, 2012

Mariusz Kwiecien, the great Polish baritone whose signature is the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” [see Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007]. brought the title role of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger”, that he previously has sung in Paris and Madrid, to the 2012 Santa Fe Opera festival in a new production.

A company premiere for the harmonically complex early 20th century masterwork, it was mounted with a strong cast of principals (besides Kwiecien,the cast includes William Burden as the Shepherd, Erin Morley as Queen Roxana, Dennis Petersen as the Arab scholar Edrisi, Raymond Aceto as the Archbishop and Santa Fe Apprentice Laura Wilde as the Deaconess.)

The opera was sung in its original Polish, even though Kwiecien is the only native Polish speaker in the cast.

[Below: King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien, center, seated) receives counsel from the Deaconess (Laura Wilde, far left), Queen Roxana (Erin Morley, standing behind Roger’s throne), Edrisi (Dennis Petersen, center, dressed in blue) and the Archbishop (Raymond Aceto, far right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The new production was created by director Stephen Wadsworth and set designer Thomas Lynch, the team that developed Seattle’s world-famous production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, and Duane Schuler the lighting.

Karol Szymanowski and the Essence of “King Roger”

In a previous essay on one of the operas of the 2012 Santa Fe season [Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012], I wrote of the interconnectedness in several different ways of the five summer operas, quite notably the attempts of certain characters in each of the five operas to escape the attempts of the larger society – represented by the powers of the state, the religious authorities, or social custom – to control the character’s behavior.

But “King Roger” adds yet another dimension to my observation of that underlying theme.

In the case of such operas as “Tosca”, “Pearl Fishers” and “Arabella” – as interesting as facts about their historical time periods or the composers’ biographies might be to a member of the audience – there actually is no need to know a thing about the lives of the respective composers Puccini, Bizet and Richard Strauss, to fully enjoy these operas.

In the case of “King Roger”, however, it seems to me improbable that one can get hold of the essence of this opera, without a basic sense of what its composer, Karol Szymanowski, experienced in the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century.

[Below: The Shepherd (William Burden, left) explains how his god’s teachings center on the sensual, evoking the interest of King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien, center) and  Queen Roxana (Erin Morley, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Szymanowski was a member of the Polish landed aristocracy prior to the Russian revolution, at a time when Poland was annexed to the Ukraine. Raised in an artistic environment, in his late 20s and 30s he had traveled to Sicily and North Africa. Despite the profound influence of his Catholic religion on him, he reveled in the Mediterranean countries’ sexual liberation, especially its acceptance of gay behaviors.

Szymanowski’s ancestral estates were destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when he was 35. In 1919, he pursued a relationship with a young Russian teenager, Boris Kochno, who became the center, for a while, of a love triangle that included Szymanowski and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghelev.

Szymanowski wrote a gay novel, Efebos, whose central chapters were given to Kochno. The remainder of the unpublished novel was destroyed by fire from the bombing of Warsaw in 1939.

He worked on “King Roger” for several years and, although it premiered in Warsaw in 1926, it was seldom performed in his lifetime. He was impoverished for most of his later life. Although he suffered from tuberculosis, he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, and died in 1937 at the age of 55.

[Below: King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien, seated, below) leans against Edrisi (Dennis Petersen, standing left) as Roxana (Erin Morley, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Immediate Source of “King Roger”

The opera’s libretto that Szymanowski wrote with his cousin Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz utilizes ideas from Euripides play The Bacchae. These ideas include the appearance of the god Dionysius as the manifestation of sensuality and the orgiastic dancing of Dionysius’ followers, the Bacchae or Maenads.

But in the opera, the center of the drama has shifted from Dionysius (or his equivalent in Szymanowski’s work, the Shepherd) to Roger, the historical Norman King of Sicily (of course, in a totally non-historical setting.)

What results is an opera in which we feel we have entered the soul of the composer and his struggles between behaviors prescribed by the Catholic Church (his ties to which he would not break) and the liberation that comes from the total submission to the sensual and erotic parts of his personality.

[Below: King Roger (Mariuz Kwiecien) sheds his monarchical robe; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera..]

The biographical information suggests what the pyschological meaning of the Shepherd and the Bacchae was to Szymanowski, and the Shepherd, in other productions, has been costumed as a seductive, comely youth.

But others can, and do, find their own metaphorical meanings in the church (which could represent the state, religion or social custom, or whatever is inhibiting one’s actions), the Shepherd and the bacchanale.

The Vocal and Orchestral Performances

Conductor Evan Rogister was able to produce from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra a magnificent full sound, that resonated especially in the first act church scene with its massive chorus.

Erin Morley’s coloratura skills were utilized in the part of Roger’s Queen Roxana.

William Burden’s Shepherd was yet another bravura performance for the New Jersey lyric tenor, whose range gives him the capacity to take on both the role’s high tessitura with baritonal power in the lower notes.

In this opera with two tenors, it is noteworthy that the second tenor, Dennis Petersen (who plays Mime in Stephen Wadsworth’s Seattle “Ring” productions of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried), has the vocal power and dramatic skills to carry his weight in the dramatically important role of the Arab scholar Edrisi.

Casting a world-class basso cantante (Raymond Aceto) in the relatively brief role of the Archbishop was an example of the Santa Fe Opera Festival’s commitment to this production’s success. The Archbishop’s Deaconess, Laura Wilde, also was impressive.

But towering above all of these wonderful supporting performances is Mariusz Kweicien’s profoundly conceived King Roger, beautifully sung, as one always expects from Kwiecien. But it is also performed with a conviction that suggests that Kwiecien is fully confident that he is at one with the character that Szymanowski devised, and has become the perfect examplar of Syzmanowski’s intent.

[Below: Now fully comprehending the lessons of the Shepherd (William Burden, center below, wearing wreath), King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien, carried above) abandons his inhibitions; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


There are many works that are worthy of live performances that fit best in the ambitious schedules of a balanced festival such as Santa Fe Opera presents. This is a such a work, filled with lush, sometimes ethereal,  often haunting music.

It’s a fascinating exploration of pyschological insights in a musical style whose operatic contemporaries are Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Berg, but whose musical influences also include Wagner, Byzantine and Slavic church and folk music, and the sounds from the North and South shores of the Mediterranean.

Ways of thinking in early 20th century Central Europe are so dissimilar in the 21st century in so many ways, that the metaphors will have different meanings to those of later times, and the opera’s ambiguity (and its often luscious musical score) may prove to be its strength.

Not all will find the opera immediately accessible, but many will. Those who wish to commit to a deeper study of the opera are likely to find that it rewards the effort.

The cast, and particularly the performance of Kwiecien, provides the reason why persons who want to experience this opera, should seek out the remaining Santa Fe Opera performances.

For my reviews of other Mariusz Kwiecien performances, see: Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010 and Kwiecien, Pisaroni Lead Youthful “Figaro” Ensemble in Santa Fe – August 13, 2008.

For a related interview, see: American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden.