Long Beach doesn't play by the obvious rules. Not, in any case, when it comes to opera.
While adventurous Costa Mesa is girding its collective loins for the dated Broadway kitsch of "Kismet," and dauntless San Diego is preparing to hum along, once again, with Gounod's "Faust," Michael Milenski and his followers continue to pursue challenges that are genuinely bold and eminently forbidding.
The vehicle in the shadow of the Queen Mary Sunday afternoon was "King Roger" (a.k.a. "Krol Roger"), a fascinating, gushing, mystical opus by the Polish neo-romanticist Karol Szymanowski.
It has never been staged in the United States before. If our count is correct, it has received only seven stagings anywhere since its premiere in Warsaw in 1926.
"King Roger" doesn't make life easy for the audience at the Terrace Theater, or for the participants. It is an opera of ideas and ideals as well as an opera of emotions. It fuses bald exposition with narrative convolution with stagy splendor, allowing psychological and philosophical detours, and contains the sprawl in three compact acts bearing 90 minutes of music.
The libretto, concocted by Szymanowski in collaboration with his cousin Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, is an exotic evocation of historical impulses, mythological references and subjective revelations. The point of departure, no doubt, is "The Bacchae."
The titular monarch, an actual personage of 12th-Century Sicily, represents Christian conformity. His potential antagonist, Dionysus disguised as a mysterious Shepherd, represents pagan liberation. Caught between these aesthetic and moral extremes are Roxana, the susceptible Queen, and Edrisi, the court scholar and, in effect, something like an Arab incarnation of Loge.
Possibly the most significant composer to emerge from Poland since Chopin, Szymanowski revealed himself in "King Roger" as an inspired eclectic. He cloaked his symbolic visions in lush sonorities recalling Richard Strauss, added dramatic strokes of color suggesting the influence of Scriabin, meandered in sweeping atmospheric blurs invoking the French impressionists.
Still, he maintained his individuality. Despite the familiar accents, he spoke his own language with a primitive rhythmic pulse, a stern harmonic focus and extended vocal lines that mirror the inflections of the original text.
On the admittedly sketchy evidence of a single hearing, "King Roger" would seem to be an uneven opera. There are obvious great moments--the massive polyphonic chants, the rapturous monologue of the Shepherd, the heated orchestral introduction to Act II, Roxana's sensuous and insinuating aria (familiar to fiddle-fanciers from the Kochanski transcription), the ecstatic, multifaceted, ultraclimactic finale.
There also would seem to be murky passages, tawdry episodes, simple filler. Even the filler, however, sounds like the work of a master.
The Long Beach production, which attracted a good deal of national attention, did not make things easy for Szymanowski. Instead of presenting the opera in the literal manner envisioned by the composer, the local authorities opted, as is their wont, for a very modern interpretation.
Modern interpretations can be stimulating when applied to works we all know and, presumably, love. They can be a bit confusing, even disconcerting, when applied to the unknown.
David Alden, the celebrated enfant terrible director, chose to move the action to something like the present. On a sparse, Brechtian stage, he reduced the mighty king to a board chairman. The Queen resembled his moll. The godly Shepherd entered as a bedraggled bum but later assumed the glamorous attire of a business suit. The bleak masses, dressed in black, rushed on and off in unison, served as background scenery and took off their shoes to indicate unbridled passion.
Philipp Jung's postmodern sets, striking but contradictory, transformed the Byzantine cathedral into an empty space with a white cyclorama. The palace courtyard became a board room populated by many empty chairs; a TV monitor on the rear wall chronicled the rising action--fraught, no doubt, with meaning--of an ordinary escalator.
The crucial finale ignored the prescribed ruins of a Greek temple. Instead, it offered a much-traveled gangplank rising to a door cut into a painted backdrop that revealed a repetitive panorama of clouds.
The art and invention at work here could not be doubted. What could be doubted was the appropriateness of this style to this music and this drama.
Musically, the performance proved less provocative.
Murry Sidlin conducted with sweep and passion without slighting detail. The large orchestra played splendidly for him, and the William Hall Chorale sang with fervor that never precluded precision. Sidlin's departure from these environs will leave a serious void.
The cast coped heroically with challenges that sometimes bordered on the unreasonable. James Johnson stalked the boards earnestly as the King and, until he met his vocal Waterloo in the strenuous finale, sang with a big, pliant, slightly fuzzy baritone. Jon Fredric West hardly resembled the beautiful youth of the libretto, but he sounded like a reasonable facsimile of a Heldentenor god. Nancy Shade exuded allure as Roxana so long as she didn't have to scream to assert her soprano above the rabble.
Jonathan Mack as the wily Edrisi wore, for some unfathomable reason, a greasy black wig and white makeup upon which someone had painted black eyeglasses. He sang with expressive lyrical point anyway. Michael Gallup and Lisa Turetsky performed secondary roles with stoic urgency.
The English translation was credited to Geoffrey Dunn. The comprehension quotient, unfortunately, turned out to be very low. Where are those infernal supertitles on the few occasions when they really might be useful?
It would be less than realistic to call this production of "King Roger" a total triumph. Nevertheless, it must be seen by anyone who regards modern musical theater as a serious enterprise. The second, final performance takes place Wednesday night.