Polish composer Karol Szymanowski is not a name familiar to most American audiences. Bard Summerscape will change that tonight with its double bill of Szymanowski’s opera “King Roger” and his pastoral dance “Harnasie.” Celebrated Polish film and stage director Lech Majewski is the director and designer of both productions.
‘King Roger’ and ‘Harnasie’
WHERE: Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Route 9G, Annandale-on-Hudson
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, Thursday and Aug. 2; 3 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 3.
HOW MUCH: $75 to $25 except July 31 — $65 to $20.
MORE INFO: 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu
“Everyone in Poland is aware of his operas,” Majewski said. “The music definitely has hidden gems.”
In his youthful days, Szymanow-ski (1882-1937) immersed himself in German Romanticism and wrote music reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Later, he embraced the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel and the harmonic ambiguities of Scriabin. Among his many travels throughout Russia and Europe, however, he took a trip in 1911 to Sicily and North Africa, where he discovered Islam, early Christendom and cultures of antiquity.
Szymanowski’s interest in these became all-consuming and eventually surfaced in “King Roger.” Later, in the 1920s, his study of Polish folk music and the music of Stravinsky and Bartok made his harmonic language leaner and more nationalistic. This new sound prevailed in “Harnasie.”
Both works have voluptuously written scores. The opera’s libretto, which was written by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, is Dionysian in tone.
In “King Roger,” a 12th-century Sicilian king hears about a mysterious shepherd in his kingdom who is preaching a gospel of erotic abandon. His wife, the Queen Roxana, and a member of his court, Edrisi, become seduced and run away to follow the shepherd. The king abdicates and goes in search of them. When he finds them, the king is so impressed with the shepherd’s meekness and humility, he experiences a rapturous revelation that supposedly fuses his rational and sensual selves. The shepherd then reveals himself as Dionysius.
The 90-minute opera premiered in 1926 in Warsaw to great acclaim. Although there have been several recordings of the music done over the years, productions of the opera have more often occurred in Poland, which is where Majewski saw it.
“I haven’t been impressed,” he said. “But I’m more interested in my own vision. That’s my speciality. I make strong visions.”
The opera has several challenges. Each of the three acts has a different set: Act 1 is in a Byzantine church; Act 2 is in an Oriental palace courtyard; Act 3 is in an ancient Hellenistic theater in Syracuse. The music, too, changes from act to act: ranging from a cappella choruses and modal chants to Arabic-Persian scales to shifts between intimate lyricism and dissonant wildness.
“I’m being faithful to his score,” Majewski said. “I’m building some of the elements onstage, which are quite large, like a fountain and a throne with fire. It will be very visual. That’s my job: stage magic.”
Excessive stage demands were also an issue for “Harnasie.” Although the 1935 premiere in Prague was highly successful, bonfires onstage and asking singers to jump over those fires, along with seven scenes in two acts in the space of a 35-minute work disenchanted organizers over the years who might have been interested in mounting a production of the show. But modern technology has solved those problems, Majewski said.
“Harnasie” is also unusual in that it’s considered a theatrical hybrid: a folk dance with a tenor soloist and a massive choir. For this production, the Wroclaw Opera Chorus, tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier and a children’s choir will perform. Wojciech Misiuro will choreograph.
Szymanowski and Jerzy Rytard wrote the work in 1931. It is about a reluctant peasant bride who falls in love with an outlaw named Harnas, the leader of a gang of bandits in the Tatra mountains of south Poland. She eventually succumbs to his charms.
The music is heavily flavored with Polish folk songs, which is why Majewski said he found it important that a Pole was directing and designing the production.
“There are timeless issues and its charm and beauty is Oriental. It will have a fairytale setting,” he said.
To his knowledge, this is the first time both works will be shown together. That, too, made for challenges, because there is no visual tradition to fall back on, he said. Besides the difference in time line of more than 700 years, the music goes from very aristocratic-sounding to highlander music. His decision was to connect what few similarities he can find through the sets, he said, adding that he’s also designing the costumes.
Majewski took eight months to study the two works and listen to recordings. Because he’s done so many films in recent years — four of which will soon be distributed worldwide as a package and include “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” “The Roe’s Room,” “Glass Lips” and “Gospel According to Harry” — he had to relearn how to work on the stage and particularly with an opera.
“Opera has a very specific language and its own logic and grammar,” he said. “You must forget about film.”
However, his background of poetry and painting will serve him well with the Szymanowski works, he said.
“I want to show their beauty,” Majewski said.
The American Symphony Orchestra under conductor Leon Botstein will play. Botstein will give a free opera talk at 1 p.m. on Sunday.