Symphony Hall is, by design, a rather Apollonian place. Ornamentation kept to a minimum. Seats firm. Backs stiff.
But on Thursday night, for 90 glorious minutes, the hall cavorted with its opposite. There were Dionysian dreams, opiate arias, dances of wordless rapture, and invitations to “ecstasy’s kingdom.”
Or more accurately, Roger’s kingdom: that is, the sybaritic sound world of Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger,” a fascinating rare bird of a modern opera, sighted here for the first time in all its exotic plumage. Charles Dutoit has championed this work internationally, and on Thursday night he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a cast of vocal soloists in the first of two performances.
Written between 1918 and 1924, “King Roger” was the vessel into which Szymanowski poured a heady mix of philosophy, sensuality, personal struggle, and a vast set of musical influences. The examples of Wagner, Debussy, Schreker, Bartok, Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Rimsky-Korsakov all hover at the margins of this score, but Szymanowski was also determined to say something new. He sought to yank his own beloved Polish musical tradition into the modern era, yet for Szymanowski, the path forward required a marriage of musical nationalism with a true artistic cosmopolitanism. “King Roger” is at once a realization of his ideals and a reflection on the very subject of realization itself, whether personal, spiritual, or national.
Set in 12th-century Sicily, the libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz draws from Euripides’s “Bacchae” in illuminating the opera’s central tension: the age-old conflict between the demands of body and mind, between the sensual and the repressively rational, between civilization and, if you will, its discontents.
The work opens in a Byzantine cathedral, where a mysterious Shepherd is accused of leading the devout masses away from Christianity. He sings, in long and arching phrases, of another kind of deity. His is a sweetly seductive pantheism, one that finds God in the “whispering of oceans,” in “the shade of the forest,” and in the pleasures of a nighttime caress.
King Roger senses danger and almost yields to calls for the Shepherd’s execution. His wife, Queen Roxana, falls under the Shepherd’s spell. So do the people. Ultimately, after much internal conflict in Act II, Roger himself succumbs and sets out to join them. The opera culminates with a kind of Jungian passage from darkness into light, as the king, transformed by his journey, separates himself from the crowd, ascends the steps of an ancient theater, and sings a hymn to the rising sun. The work ends in a radiant sonic blaze.
If “King Roger” both expressed and answered the needs of its composer, on multiple levels, during the early interwar period, its most obvious appeal today flows from sheer opulence: the extraordinary glitter of Szymanowski’s orchestra, the diaphanous sheen of his choral writing, the super-saturation of color he achieves at climaxes. For his part, Dutoit knows how to draw out the music’s elemental qualities while respecting the work’s striking sophistication of craft. At certain moments on Thursday, Symphony Hall felt positively drenched in detailed, elegant sound.
Thursday’s principal singers did well, even if this opera asks them to serve more as the mouthpiece of various ideas than as flesh-and-blood characters. The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien relied on his score to a degree that diminished the immediacy of his performance, but he nonetheless sang the role of King Roger with strength and sensitivity. Olga Pasichnyk was a pure-voiced and appealing Roxana, and Edgaras Montvidas was excellent in the role of the Shepherd, singing with a sweet-toned tenor that conveyed the score’s sensual refinement. Rafal Majzner was mostly solid as Edrisi, an Arabian sage. Raymond Aceto and Yvonne Naef capably took on smaller roles.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to this formidable challenge, singing by memory in Polish and generating washes of opalescent choral sound. Special recognition also goes to the young singers of Voices Boston, formerly known as the PALS Children’s Chorus, which performed admirably. “King Roger” gets just one more performance on Saturday night, and is well worth catching before it’s gone.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com