For his second week of concerts, Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in what is sure to be one of the season's most important events-the first BSO performances of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's moving opera King Roger. Set in 12th-century Sicily and loosely based on Euripides'The Bacchae, King Roger has long been championed by Maestro Dutoit, who led the Paris, New York, Japanese, and Canadian premieres of this rarely heard work, which, even beyond the conflict between Christianity and paganism built into the libretto, more broadly addresses the universal struggles between paganism and intellect, intellect and wisdom, darkness and light. Featuring an internationally heralded cast headed by star Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who makes his BSO subscription series debut in the title role, these performances will be sung in Polish with English supertitles.(Some emphasis added.)
The music is not tough to take. It's similar to other late Romantic opera in a way. There are no immediately obvious "tunes" but there are soaring lines. It's more like Strauss than Verdi, or even Wagner or Puccini. I'm not sure how it will work without the text, but if you take it just as music, I think it can be enjoyable. For an idea of what's going on, you can read the program notes and listen to the audio previews — not only those on the BSO's own page, but also the one on the WCRB page. After attending the concert, I found some video excerpts from staged performances. In one case, seeing the action rounded out the experience, making the music and words more meaningful when linked to the action. In the other case, the director brought in a lot of business which isn't called for in the score — regietheater, they call it in German — and it was not so useful.
The reviews were favorable, but since it isn't a familiar work, they couldn't really judge how well it was done. We'll have to accept that, given the quality of the performers, it was good. The review in the Globe gives a good sense of what the music is like as well as what it depicts. It helps perhaps, that there is only one work to review, and the reviewer may have been given a little extra space. The Boston Musical Intelligencer gives further insight into Szymanowski's musical style and has more to say about the performers. I know that Mariusz Kwiecien has sung a number of staged performances, and basically owns the role of King Roger, so with him you certainly get the "real deal."
My own reaction to the whole thing has to include my feelings about the message of the opera — and I think it clearly has a message. Basically, I think the distinction between reason and order, on the one hand, and feeling and pleasure, on the other, is a false one. I mean that to choose one and exclude the other would be a mistake. Both should be present, and in balance. The Shepherd sings "My God is beautiful, as I am." Christianity would say the same. Beauty is a divine attribute. Truth is another. Catholicism in particular — perhaps along with other strains of Christianity — has at times succumbed to a sort of "Puritanism," an emphasis on avoiding sin, which left little room for joy, for spontaneous feelings, for appreciation of beauty. So there is justification in actual experience for Szymanowski's setting Church and beauty in opposition. But I don't think they need to be opposed, and in Dutoit's reading, at least, it seems that King Roger, and therefore Szymanowski, achieve a healthy synthesis.
So, you can listen at 8:00 p.m. this evening March 7, and again on March 16, to the broadcast or web stream over WCRB, and see what you think. If you like the music of Richard Strauss, you'll probably like this.