Contrasts and Surprises, from 'King Roger' and 'L'Inganno Felice"

WOO-1530-250-same-Roger            The history of music is full of works often called "neglected masterpieces."  Most of them are actually just one or the other -- either neglected, or a masterpiece -- but not both.  To paraphrase an old saying, the cream seldom settles to the bottom.  Still, there are exceptions.

            Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882, in Ukraine.  His family, however, was Polish, and he spent much of his musical life in Warsaw.  By now, he's widely regarded as among the most important Polish composers since Chopin.

            By just about any standard, Szymanowski's music is original, technically brilliant, and often remarkably beautiful.  Yet, his work occupies a sort of middle ground.  When it comes to the music of Polish masters, Syzmanowski's highly-individual style seems to fall almost directly in between the 19th-century Romanticism of Chopin, and the stark, often "avante garde" works of highly-regarded 20th-century composers such as Krzystof Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski.

            Early on, perhaps inspired by Chopin, Szymanowski began to write music for solo piano, including sets of Preludes and Mazurkas, and he continued writing brief piano works throughout his career.  He also wrote many, brilliant large-scale scores, including four symphonies and two concertos.

            And then there's the work that so fully deserves both halves of the description, "neglected masterpiece."  It's King Roger, a brief but highly charged three-act opera deserving of far more attention than it gets.

            Szymanowski began King Roger in 1920.  It was completed four years later, and waited two more years for its premiere, which took place in Warsaw in June of 1926.  The libretto was a collaboration between the composer and his cousin, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. 

            The story is based partly on historical figures, and partly on the classic drama The Bacchae, by Euripides.  Its events revolve around the ancient, symbolic rivalry between the gods Apollo and Dionysus -- between lofty, spiritual ideals and unbound, earthly pleasures. 

            Szymanowski's many-faceted music is superbly suited to the story's central conflict.  In basic terms, the more modern elements tend to reflect the traditional, straight-laced ideals of the opera's title character, while the arrival of King Roger's freewheeling challenger, the Shepherd, prompts a lyrical, almost romantic turn, as the music becomes more lyrical, and romantic, 

            Ironically, those shifting qualities, which make the music so apt for the complex interactions of the story, may also have played a role in keeping the opera out of the mainstream.  With both music and drama wavering between the bonds of tradition and untethered sensuality, the opera may leave audiences wondering what, exactly, they've just heard -- and, even more unsettling, which way they're being urged to turn when it's all over.

            King Roger comes to us this week in its first-ever production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  As mentioned, Syzmanowksi's opera is a brief one -- with its three acts totaling only about 80 minutes -- and that leaves time for a bit of travel. 

            With Szymanowski's drama concluded, World of Opera, with host Lisa Simeone, travels from London to historic La Fenice in Venice, for another rare gem.  It's the clever, one-act farce L'Inganno Felice -- The Happy Deception -- by Gioachino Rossini.