Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
When King Roger makes his first entrance in the modern opera named after him, it’s a troubling sight of personal defeat and depression. In Rossini’s “Maometto II,” the Turkish potentate bursts through a stone wall in a vigorous demonstration of power. One shows a man struggling with unknown despair. The other proclaims uber-confidence. The contrast couldn’t be greater and sets in motion two spectacular productions of two very different stories.
This summer Santa Fe Opera presents the world premiere of the critical edition of Rossini’s tragedy. The opera opened in 1820 to mixed reviews. Many versions came after with different endings, bringing more and more success. In the new critical edition, prepared under musicologist Philip Gossett, the score reflects the final integration of Rossini’s numerous autographed manuscripts.
On top of that, Scenic and Costume Designer Jon Morrell has created the illusion of a city under siege. Overall, the look is contemporary with tilted staircases, colossal walls and niches, all with ancient overtones. The conflict between East and West becomes evident in costuming – clashing armies, Venetian colonial women and an Islamic harem. At the core of this political drama is a passionate and unfortunate love affair.
As conceived by Director David Alden, the powerful Maometto, aka the historical Persian conqueror Mehmed II, subdues a Venetian colony with ferocious intensity. Portrayed by the tall and imposing baritone, Luca Pisaroni, Maometto is a terrifying commander. His palace-wall entrance is as striking a stage moment as his later exit on an imperial chariot.
The lovers, Maometto and Anna, daughter of the besieged town’s ruler, are victor and vanquished. Soprano Leah Crocetto, winner of the 2010 National Metropolitan Opera competition, is a dazzling coloratura who interprets her many long arias with ease.
More than three hours long, “Maometto” clearly wins the summer marathon. At 90-minutes running time, the intermissionless “King Roger” functions as an Olympic 400-meter race by comparison.
The sumptuous staging of Szymanowski’s work, with its three distinct scenes, offers a complete operatic experience. Like “Maometto,” “King Roger” is based on historical characters. King Roger was a 12th-century Sicilian ruler with a Norman pedigree. His court in Palermo made the island a cultural crossroad in the Mediterranean Sea.
The opera opens at court, in Roger’s Cappella Palatina. but the king is mysteriously depleted and undergoes a life-shattering transformation.
The libretto brims with ambiguity. Conceived after World War I and premiered in 1926, the opera could be viewed as a political metaphor, the resurrection of a country after a disaster. Or it could be interpreted as a religious allegory, a philosophical argument or a psychological drama. In conversation afterward, opera fans supported all of the above.
My preference? A psychodynamic interpretation. Here’s why: The king suffers from an unexplained depression; his marriage and kingdom are at an impasse. When the shepherd-prophet arrives, things quickly unravel. Roger is unable to restore order until he lets go and finally integrates the pieces of his shattered life. A mid-life crisis is a cliché, but it fits, especially as the director stages the final scene.
Sung by Mariusz Kwiecien, the spellbinding Polish baritone who has championed the work internationally, King Roger suffers a breakdown and finally regains a sense of self.
Underlying all this, the opera links to Euripides’ The Bacchae. Szymanowski explores the ancient struggle between reason and emotion. When the shepherd enters the Sicilian court with his message of freedom, nothing will ever be the same again.
Szymanowski’s score combines a number of musical styles, reflecting angular modernism as well as fluid Impressionism and orientalizing modes. The composer also acknowledged Wagner’s influence, which can be heard in the complex interweaving of instrumental and vocal lines. The SFO chorus has been augmented by the Desert Chorale, so the big effects of choral chanting are mesmerizing.
The opera comes to an abrupt conclusion with a quiet C-major chord. After a wild night, the sun rises and King Roger is alone on stage. You have to see this simple conclusion to grasp its dramatic power.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.