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That Szpecial Szymanowski Szyzzle

Sosnoff Theatre, Bard College, Annandale
07/25/2008 -  July 27,31, August 3
Opera at Bard Summerscape 2008
Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger, opus 46 – Harnasie, opus 55

King Roger: Adam Kruszewski (Roger II, King of Sicily), Iwonna Hossa (Roxana), Tadeusz Szlenkier (Shepherd), Wojciech Maciejowski (Edrisi), Ewa Marciniec (Deaconess), Wojciech Bukalski (Archbishop)
Lech Majewski (Director, set and costume design, lighting, movement/choreography)
Harnasie: Tadeusz Szlenkier (Tenor soloist), Kevin O’Connor (Bridegroon), Emma Stein (Bride), Gary Lai (First Harnas) Sam Peterson (Fiddler), Meghan Merrill (Widow)
Noémie LaFrance (Choreographer), Ewa Kocharnska (Costume design)
Wroclaw Opera Chorus, Malgorzata Orawska (Chorus Master), The Summerscape Children’s Chorus, Susan Bialek (Chorus Master), Sharon Bjorndal (Resident Chorus Master), Yelena Kurdina (Principal Music Coarch), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Conductor, Music Director)

The Bard College Festival is devoting practically all of August to Sergei Prokofiev, but the first opera of the season belonged to a fellow Slav who deserves far more fame. Ukrainian-born Polish composer Karol Szymanowski is hardly a household word, but he was certainly the most original Polish composer between Chopin and Lutoslawski. But this itself brings up certain contradictions. His “originality” was an amalgam in his early years of Strauss, Wagner and Reger. His middle period ballet Harnasie seemed at times a takeoff on Stravinsky, theatrically from Les Noces musically from Petruchka, albeit using real folksongs from the Polish mountains.

But in, King Roger, Szymanowski truly wrote a 20th Century opera which is as singular in its way as Wozzeck, Jenufa or Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Except...Well, except for one factor. In the massive production at the beautiful auditorially perfect Sosnoff Theatre, it could hardly be called an opera at all.

What should have been ecstatic was quite consciously static. The incredibly radiant sets described by Symanowski and his librettist Iwaszkiewicz became three worlds of dismal gloom. Yes, the lighting was original: a flying/floating censer for Act One, flaming swords and (what looked like) illuminated jellyfish for the second, and a blazing sun and fire for the third. But all of them against black. The dancing, so vital to the story, was faintly South Indian, but lacking even approaching the essential sensuality. The costumes were outrageously colorful (including a Carmen Miranda-style hat for the Shepherd), and musically it was an undiluted triumph.

But in a way, King Roger could have been a costumed oratorio, a medieval mystery play, a musical drama, or a trio of tableaux vivants (without much vie).

Audience reactions probably went two ways. Without prior knowledge of the story—Dionysus versus Christ/Apollo—the gloominess could be “creepy” (to quote one audience member) . A believer in old-style Madame Blavetsky Theosophy cum Scriabin-style mysticism might be entranced into the mesmeric esoterica of the opera.

As for myself, I had never seen King Roger on stage, but do have a libretto which describes the settings in the most immaculate detail. The church setting at the beginning gives descriptions of the bricks, the columns, the icons, the Byzantine architecture which blended with the modal opening chorus. The second act is supposed to be “Oriental opulence”, with Mosul carpets, fountains, galleries, tapestries. The third act is a Greek theatre. And without that setting, the transformation of the Shepherd into Dionysus (or Bacchus) simply can’t be done.

So, while this production had its merits, Szymanowski—very much the homoerotic voluptuary whose libretto reflected his own tastes—it lacked the aural or visual perfume that should send us swooning.

On the good side, the voices of this production seemed terrific. I am no judge of Polish, but the words were clear, the phrasing as rapturous as possible. Only one really great aria comes from here, Roxana’s almost hysterical welcome to the shepherd from Act II. Iwonna Hossa sung with all the rapture possible, a wild-voiced (yet always controlled) woman in search of a dream.

The “dream” is the Shepherd, one of the truly insane characters of operatic literature. The supreme Narcicisst (“The God I worship is as beautiful as I am”), the cruel supernatural leader who breaks shackles savagely ridicules earthly desires, Tadeusz Szlenkier, already an international star, looked the part and sung beautifully.

King Roger may be the stodgy old conservative Christian, but Adam Kruszewski did the best he could. And—in keeping with Szymanowski’s study of Arab music and fascination with Islam—Edrisis, as played by Wojciech Maciejowski, was the Sufi advisor with a resounding tenor voice.

But best of all was the chorus—which gives one of the most exciting openings of any opera—and Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra, which played the highly colorful score without a falter, without an error, taken at a propulsive pace, emphasizing those dark forces of nature which the composer attempted with such passion to bring to light.

CODA: Before the relatively short opera (about 80 minutes), Szymanowski’s ballet, Harnasie was danced, sung and played. A simple plot of brigands, a wedding party and (yes, naturally) a brigand eloping with the bride, the dancing didn’t seem very inventive, with the corps de ballet running, strolling, sauntering in ensemble.

But what music!!! That was Szymanowski in his Stravinskyan incarnation, but he used the folk tunes of his Polish mountains, and the orchestration of a born master.

Both productions are very very rare in America, and Bard still has two performances to go (with a bus leaving from and for New York next Sunday.) Creepy the opera may be to some, but others may well uncover the radiance amidst the ruins.

Harry Rolnick



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