In 1924, Polish composer Karol Szymanowski completed what many consider his magnum opus. Ninety-eight years later, “King Roger,” a compact opera full of big ideas, made its local debut last week with two performances produced by the Chicago Opera Theater.
Szymanowski was born in 1882, the same year as Stravinsky and Kodály, in present-day Timoshivka in Ukraine. He escaped fighting in the Tsar’s army in World War I because of a lame knee and instead spent the war composing. Before the war he visited Sicily twice and studied its culture. “King Roger” is nominally the 12th century Sicilian king of that name.
Yet “King Roger” only uses this real historical figure as a starting point. The opera is unusual in having little action. The titular character encounters a heretical shepherd whom a mob wants to arrest and put to death. Roger decides to hear what the man has to say, which causes the king to take a new direction in his life.
“King Roger” (“Król Roger” in Polish), which debuted at the Harris Theater on November 18, explores the clash of dualities: Christianity versus paganism, wisdom versus love, reason versus emotion, intellect versus instinct. Ultimately, the opera is about transformation. A fascinating aspect of the work is that precisely what Roger wrestles with and exactly what he ultimately decides on is left vague enough for the opera to have countless interpretations, drawing viewers into the story in order to come to their own conclusions. It’s a psychological journey for Roger that viewers must interpret for themselves.
The opera in three acts is short, around 85 minutes. The acts, known in order as “Byzantine”, “Arab” and “Ancient”, each have their own particular flavor. and the experts refer to Each act contains musical elements indicative of these times or places; for example, church music with open fifths begins the opera in “Byzantine”. Because the opera is mostly written in the style of Szymanowski, it does, however, contain a kind of modern expressionism written in very chromatic lines sometimes with sharp dissonance.
What sets Szymanowski apart from the rest is his immense talent for coloristic effects and his exceptional talent for creating exotic and otherworldly music. This is where the Chicago Opera Theater production really took off. The sound of the pit was captivating. COT’s musical director, Lidiya Yankovskaya, presided over the orchestra with authority, carefully drawing the vast details and intricate rhythmic elements of this intellectual drama, where the composer’s nuanced treatment of each emotional journey is complete with both rattles and joy. The 70-member orchestra created a powerful and evocative sound that made the evening memorable.
The libretto was originally written by the composer’s distant cousin Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, but was also credited to Szymanowski, as he made significant changes to Act III. The text is full of symbolism and is beautifully poetic, containing lines such as “(I come) from the smile of the southern stars”, “In an unknown heart, love blooms at night like a flower” or “Hiding its empty heart in ragged shreds of dreams.This is a long opera about poetry rather than intrigue.
Mariusz Godlewski, a Polish singer familiar with the task of taking on Roger, sang the title role with confidence and flair. He was on stage for the duration of the opera and had to express a wide range of ideas while for the most part navigating music that mixes recitative and arioso. He offered a star ride, holding our attention throughout.
Another Polish singer, Iwona Sobotka, matched Godlewski’s intensity and provided a shimmering Roxana queen. She convincingly championed the idea of love and brought seductive power to her shepherd-inspired Act II song.
In contrast, the Islamic advisor to King Edrisi, who represents wisdom and reason. David Cangelosi was a calm, cool courtier who understood politics but not necessarily emotion. It is Edrisi who wonders why the King is worried about meeting the Shepherd, when the King has all the power. Edrisi did not understand that the king was open to change and that perhaps it was this possible change that made Roger fear his encounter. Cangelosi offered elegant, insinuating vocals designed to help the king stay grounded.
Tyrone Chambers II was a fascinating shepherd, who did not hesitate to upset the king’s comfortable, traditional and conservative life. He sang with conviction.
COT also assembled a huge choir for this production, approximately 120 singers from the Lira Ensemble (according to the program, the only Polish-language professional music organization in the United States), the Apollo Chorus and Uniting Voices Chicago.
Musically, it was magnificent. Visually, it was much weaker. The stage was mainly occupied by the choir. The singers were seated across the back of the stage in bleacher-like seats similar to those in a high school auditorium, leaving little room for action.
Szymanowski provided detailed instructions for the settings for each of the three acts. The first act takes place in a cathedral in Palermo, the second in the king’s palace and the third in ancient ruins. Only the smallest details of these decorations (which seem directly more inspired by the music than by the plot) are found on stage. Some elements had to be eliminated; notably, a dance scene that was supposed to feature a large number of frenetic people was not retained. However, this opera, with its vague but intriguing history, lends itself to many interpretations. Director Dylan Evans will surely have inspired some viewers, even if he didn’t inspire me.
To see this production of “King Roger” is to understand why it is not played more frequently. For such a short work, enormous orchestral and choral forces are needed. And to decorate the stage the way Szymanowski demands, a company needs a huge room and a prize pool to recreate things like an elaborate cathedral. COT provided much more than a concert performance, and this production – clearly and honestly advertised as semi-staged – offered opera beginners a solid, reasonable visual approach and a powerful, memorable musical approach. It’s no surprise that last Friday night the Harris Theater was almost completely packed with grateful opera-goers, all excited to see something never before performed in Chicago.