Odd staging can't disguise beauty of 'King Roger'
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. -- Every decade or so, I get my hopes up that Karol Szymanowski's ravishing "King Roger," Poland's one great opera, will finally catch on.

In the '60s and '70s, mystically intense recordings of it slipped out of Soviet bloc Poland. They sounded like no other music and found cult followings. Twenty years ago, Long Beach Opera gave the American premiere of this unsettling work rich in religiosity and sexuality. Despite a striking staging, the opera quickly sank back into obscurity.

In 1999, Simon Rattle, long a Szymanowski champion, recorded the score with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The discs won this wondrous music new adherents but did little to inspire new productions outside Poland.

Here we go again. "Roger" is the featured opera at Bard College's substantive music festival, SummerScape: The first U.S. performance of the opera since Long Beach's was given at the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center here Friday night. Next month, a high-profile new production of "Roger" by the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducted by Valery Gergiev, will travel to Scotland, where it will be the centerpiece of the famed Edinburgh Festival. A DVD is likely to follow.

"Roger" should be irresistible. Szymanowski (1882-1937) was the great transition figure in Polish music. He began where Chopin left off and ultimately paved the way for his country's post-World War II avant-garde. "Roger," competed in 1924, is the summation of his sensualist phase. His circle included Prokofiev (Bard's featured composer this year), Stravinsky, Ravel and Strauss, all of whom (along with Scriabin) heavily influenced his work and thought highly of him.

The opera was the result of a trip to Sicily, where Szymanowski became entranced by the juncture of Moorish and Norman culture and caught up in a free-flowing Byzantine spiritually and eroticism. Roger, a medieval king, is confronted by a mysterious shepherd who is the embodiment of Dionysius. The monarch tries to resist this alluring stranger. Roxana, his beautiful wife, doesn't, and he eventually succumbs.

The shepherd awakens in Roger an alarming hedonism. The resolution of the opera is astonishing. As a ruler, Roger finds the inner strength to reject temptations of the flesh. But the revelation of his true sexuality gives him new awareness, new compassion, new openness. He is unlike anyone we encounter in government today.

Szymanowski's music at this period of his development is unique. The opera, which is in three short acts and lasts not quite 90 minutes, makes an extraordinary sound, with the aural aspect of the Byzantine church becoming as sensually alluring as the opera's central orgy.

Leon Botstein -- who is president of Bard College, runs the summer festival and is music director of the American Symphony Orchestra (in the pit at Bard) and the Jerusalem Symphony -- led an enthusiastic performance. But the opera is not easy to bring off onstage, given that the real battle between the spirit and flesh takes place in the orchestra.

Lech Majewski, a Polish filmmaker, directed. On paper, he seemed a good choice. Though little known in the U.S., he was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He has been called the David Lynch of Poland and has worked with Robert Wilson. Three of his films will be released on DVD in this country next month.

Majewski, who also designed the sets and costumes, did what he could to come up with visual parallels to Szymanowski's music. An orb spewing incense swung hypnotically overhead throughout the first act and filled the stage with fog. The interview of the king's palace consisted of two large cones, one used as a fountain. The shepherd hung out under an inoffensively starry sky.

But the director did himself in with silly costumes that included body armor and wacky hair (Roxana looked like a human Foster Freeze). The shepherd could have been an alien on a flying saucer in a '50s B movie. His hand gestures were as harebrained as the hairdos.

The cast was Polish. Given that this is the one Polish opera of international interest, casting can be a problem. Adam Kruszewski became a stiff king in his stiff costumes. Iwona Hossa sang Roxana's song (the opera's hit tune) prettily. Tadeusz Szlenkier was a fine shepherd as long as you kept your eyes closed.

Botstein did something unusual by opening the evening with Szymanowski's ballet "Harnasie," a score from the composer's more folk-based Bartókian period. This too is terrific music and, like the opera, is theatrically static (it has elements of dance, mime and, with the addition of a tenor and chorus, oratorio). The tale is of a bandit in the Tatra Mountains who steals a bride.

Noémie Lafrance -- a Canadian choreographer who specializes in site-specific work and is working on a project designed to be staged in various Gehry buildings -- had the "Harnasie" wedding party walk, race-walk, jog, run and sprint. The costumes were again hopeless. Projections of Polish mountains as backdrops, though, were effective.

These were not ideal productions. But music little heard was heard. "Harnasie" was a U.S. premiere. I expect many ears pricked up for a score that I am not alone in believing on par with the Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev ballets.

mark.swed@latimes.com