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Santa Fe Opera Finds Musical Gem Among Obscurities

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Categorized Under: Music


The Santa Fe Opera has no world premieres this summer, but its schedule adheres pretty closely to Santa Fe’s tradition of the offbeat mixed with the familiar. There are two rarities, Szymanowski’s King Roger and Rossini’s Maometto II, two better-known if not terribly familiar works, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Richard Strauss’s Arabella, and only one guaranteed box office boffo, Puccini’s Tosca.

For most companies, that lineup would mean trouble, but this is Santa Fe, whose audience thrives on the offbeat. That helps explain why the company’s desert theater was packed for the performance of King Roger on Friday night. Probably a large proportion of the audience had never even heard of the opera before Santa Fe programmed it, much less actually heard a performance of it. The curiosity factor was unquestionably present.

King Roger dates from 1926. Until recently it has remained mostly a musicological curiosity, at least outside of Poland, but in the 2000s it has received some international attention.

One point in its disfavor may have been that it’s in Polish, Szymanowski’s native tongue. Another point may have been its plot, whose point is baffling. Director Stephen Wadsworth quotes Szymanowski in the printed program: Roger’s quest is “a search for hidden meanings, an attempt to solve unsolvable mysteries.” For me, at least, the meanings remain hidden, the mysteries unsolved.

To sum up: King Roger and Queen Roxana are medieval monarchs in Sicily (they are based on historical figures). A mysterious shepherd goes about the countryside preaching a new gospel. He attracts the favorable attention of Roxana and the unfavorable attention of church authorities, who charge him with heresy and demand his execution. King Roger is ambivalent. In the end the shepherd is allowed to go free. He leaves, followed by a significant number of the king’s subjects, not to mention Roxana. The abandoned king has some sort of epiphany, and accepts the turn of events calmly.

There are elements of the Christ story here, of course, though the shepherd’s feel-good, “just do it” message doesn’t fit. Perhaps there are subtexts I didn’t catch.

One thing I did catch was the striking beauty of much of Szymanowski’s music. The high point came virtually at the beginning. The cast, including a large chorus, files in over a span of several long minutes of silence. Then the chorus sings a gorgeous number that deserves to belong in any collection of great operatic choruses.

If nothing that follows reaches quite that level, the opera is still filled with lovely solo, ensemble and choral pieces. Szymanowski’s large orchestra is also attractively handled. Judged by music alone, King Roger deserves to be a regular part of the operatic repertory.

The excellent cast includes one actual Pole, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, in the title role. Soprano Erin Morley as Roxana, tenor William Burden as the shepherd, tenor Dennis Peterson as Edrisi (the king’s principal advisor), and bass Raymond Aceto as the archbishop also make favorable impressions.

The opera is sung in Polish, with English and Spanish translations.

Conductor Evan Rogister and the Santa Fe orchestra and chorus deserve plaudits for their superb work.

Scenic designer Thomas Lynch and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward mix Eastern Orthodox and indeterminate elements (King Roger is in modern dress; other characters are from another era), and director Wadsworth provides some gripping elements without clearing up the plot’s mysteries.

King Roger is in three short acts. Santa Fe combines them into one 90-minute act that seems to pass quickly. There will be further performances of the opera on Aug. 9 and 14.

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On Saturday night Santa Fe took a break from its regular schedule and presented a program it dubbed “Susan Graham and Friends” (above). Practically the whole company, minus some of the summer’s principal singers, attracted a large audience who, judging by the numerous cheers and sustained applause, had a great time.

The opera orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Montgomery, was onstage rather than in the pit. It started the festivities with a brilliant performance of the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Graham, who was in excellent form, served as the witty emcee and provided some of the vocal thrills for a long evening — 19 numbers, near-three hours — of music.

The first half of the program was devoted to traditional operatic arias, duets and other ensemble numbers, the second half was more into operetta and American pop music of the Rodgers, Kern, Loewe era, with some Sondheim and Bernstein thrown in. To tell the truth, I found the second half more appealing, though the first was certainly well done.

The vocal standouts were tenor Bryan Hymel and soprano Erin Morley in addition to Graham.