Szymanowski’s ecstatic opera swirls and glows with Dutoit, BSO

March 6, 2015 at 2:48 pm

By David Wright

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien performing the title role in Szymanowski’s “King Roger” with Charles Dutoit conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Winslow Townson

It was all hands on deck Thursday night in Symphony Hall, as a plus-sized Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Voices Boston youth choir, six soloists, and conductor Charles Dutoit presented a brilliant, forceful performance of Karol Szymanowski’s mystical opera King Roger.

While the program did not claim this was a Boston premiere, it’s fair to say that Dutoit, who has led first performances of King Roger in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Montreal, was giving this city a rare look at the culminating work of an early 20th-century composer whose reputation is once again on the rise.

The opera turned out to be as concise as its performing forces are vast, as Thursday’s performance of three acts without intermission clocked in at about an hour and twenty minutes.

The mention of opera brings thoughts of character development and plot, and truth be told, King Roger is short on both.  It is better appreciated as a kind of dramatic poem in which the “characters” represent different aspects of human nature and philosophical ideas that were in the air when the work was written in the early 1920s.

Inspired by the music of Scriabin, Szymanowski was already caught up in that composer’s striving for spiritual transcendence when he visited Sicily in 1911.  The sight of a graceful Greek amphitheater next to the dour hulk of a medieval Norman fortress in a sun-drenched landscape made a “huge impression” on him, epitomizing the warring states in his own nature and putting him, as he wrote, “constantly in a state of ecstasy.”

The experience bore fruit a decade later, as this composer of much-admired songs, piano pieces, and symphonies was mired in a creative crisis brought on by war and revolution, but wrote his way out of it by revisiting that Sicilian “state of ecstasy” in an opera.

There were indeed Norman kings named Roger in Sicily during the 1100’s, and their exploits are recorded, but none of this mattered to Szymanowski as he placed his fictional, symbolic Roger at the intersection of two competing views of life: a necessarily ordered existence vs. an irrational quest for beauty, Apollo vs. Dionysus, all things in moderation vs. simply all things.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Szymanowski gave hedonism all the best lines, in the person of a mysterious figure known only as the Shepherd, who shows up at court proclaiming the life of abandonment to beauty, and soon has nearly everyone, including the queen, wailing and dancing.  What the opera has in the way of spectacular entrances, transformations, etc. all belong to him.

The entire opera depends on the Shepherd’s irresistible appeal, a tall order for one singer in concert dress with a music stand in front of him.  While he could have played this role more seductively, tenor Edgaras Montvidas sang expressively as the Shepherd, and his lung power and stamina in the long vocal lines studded with long high notes was impressive, to say the least.

Matching or exceeding the Shepherd in vocal gymnastics is the role of Roxana, the queen, who is called on to sing literally like a woman possessed for most of the opera.  Soprano Olga Pasichnyk brought marvelous agility and go-for-it abandon to her ornate part, along with flute-like clarity and enough power to stand up to all but the most extravagant orchestral fortissimos.

In contrast, tenor Rafał Majzner gave an appropriately plain and forthright performance in the always-thankless “best friend” role, or, in this royal context, the “close adviser” Edrisi.  The composer and the librettist wrote the role not as a rationalistic antagonist to the Shepherd but as a rather neutral observer, and Majzner was able to give it a welcome touch of human warmth amid all the philosophical wrangling.

Antagonism in this work came mainly from the chorus, playing priests and nuns loudly demanding that the king banish the seductive intruder, or worse.  Szymanowski’s score indicates that the chorus plays a different role later, that of the Shepherd’s followers in the countryside, but on Thursday there was a delicious irony in watching the same tuxedoed and gowned singers bellowing for the Shepherd’s head in Act I and getting down with his groove in Act II.

In all this, and also in its quasi-orchestral role of weaving mystical atmosphere with wordless vocalizing, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was a model of precise ensemble and balance, its tone and articulation tailored to the dramatic moment.

Bass Raymond Aceto and mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef made stalwart contributions to Act I’s cathedral scene as the Archbishop and a deaconess, respectively.

If you’re wondering where the title character figures in all this, the mighty King Roger comes off as more acted upon than acting in his own opera, at least at first.  A royal cipher in Act I, barking out orders and as quickly retracting them, he becomes in Act II the only character allowed to show some good old operatic emotions such as fear, anger, and jealousy, and even those only in short bursts.  Finally, in the last act, Roger engages the opera’s philosophical issues in extended monologues, affectingly sung on Thursday by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien.

Kwiecien deployed a steely but artfully inflected voice to sound regal in the first act, and a bit shaken by the Shepherd’s competition (for his wife, among other things) in the second.  How much to “act” in a concert performance is always a question, especially in roles as symbolic as most of these, so one can excuse Kwiecien for not staying in character when he wasn’t singing, though one wishes he had.

Composing with an ecstatic vision in the era after Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin, Szymanowski was lavish in every category from harmony to orchestration.  On Thursday, conductor Dutoit somehow managed to corral it all into quite a finished performance.

As the composer spread on layer after layer, Dutoit and the players kept the sound as transparent as possible.  Still, one welcomed those moments when simplicity briefly reigned, as in the opening dawn scene, with the clear youthful sound of Voices Boston woven through the orchestral-choral mists.

If this huge enterprise were booked for a run of performances instead of just one more on Saturday, one might expect the orgy scene to sound a little wilder and the temple scene more mysterious as the musicians got more comfortable with the piece.  But for a first time with a complex score, one could hardly ask for a more assured performance, and Szymanowski’s masterpiece was well served.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

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