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Le Roi Roger
Opera Bastille, Paris.
By Connie and Stevc Zilles

My wife, Connie, and I had a very interesting experience at the Opera Bastille in Paris in June. We saw a performance of the 20th century opera, Le Roi Roger (King Roger) by the Polish Composer Karol Szymanowski (1882- 1937). Yes, there is opera in Polish. This opera is one of only two operas written by Szymanowski and its music shows similarities to Straus, Debussy, Stravinsky and Janácek.

The King Roger of the title refers to the 12th century Sicilian king of the same name, but what is really important about that reference is the setting in a Christian state in an idyllic spot in the Dark Ages. The librettist, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, a cousin of Szymanowski, has fashioned a tale that is difficult to effectively stage. Into this Christian state comes a shepherd who is preaching a new religion of radiant sensuality and abandon, think Dionysius. In the three acts of the opera, the shepherd first converts the court, then the king’s wife, Roxanna, and finally the king himself. (The king starts out as a fairly repressed character who clearly sees the shepherd as a heretic and a threat and ends up being transformed by him.) The drama and the emotion in the wonderful music come from the tension between the king and shepherd.

The libretto calls for the first act to be in a Cathedral, the second in the palace and the final act in a Greek theater (emphasizing the Dionysian aspect). Then, there was the staging at the Opera Bastille. Making some of Pamela Rosenberg productions look good, this production set the opera in what looked like an extraordinarily decadent spa completewith an onstage swimming pool with a dead body floating in it and attendant heroin dealers, only the fedoras were missing. The excellent chorus was animated by projecting videos taken at odd angles on a huge screen above the swimming pool. The director might have been excused for trying to add drama to a book that seemed a bit repetitive, but his attempts did not work for me (and apparently not for much of the audience who booed the director when he went on stage at the curtain call). Because of the sensuous music (and in this production, fine singing), I would certainly see another performance of the opera, but I would like to see one in the intended setting of the opera before I see another “re-invention”.

(SJOG Newsletter August, 2009 Issue)


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