Karol Szymanowski’s opera, “King Roger,” and his theater piece “Harnasie” are very unusual. As presented Thursday night at Bard College’s Summerscape, one worked and the other didn’t.
“Harnasie” is a 35-minute work that mixes dance, fragments of arias and music in a simple plot of girl engaged to one boy but is wooed away by a seductive bad boy. The few arias, sung resonantly by tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier offstage, and members of the onstage Wroclaw Opera Chorus and Festival Children’s Chorus, told a bit of the story. The eight dancers acted out the rest.
The slide show projected on a full screen behind the players evoked the place of the Tatra Mountains well enough, but the movements of the more than 30 people on stage were a melee. Their chief direction seemed to be to walk or run on and offstage or in circles. The music, which was somewhat based on Polish folk tunes, was Bartok-like in its rhythms and restless jarring and had occasional haunting moments, as in the beginning and at the end, which was magical.
Plaudits go to staging the work since it is rarely seen. It still seems experimental even after more than 70 years. This production, however, had no center.
“King Roger” was much better, principally owing to director Lech Majewski’s consistent and fantastical vision. Set in a 12th-century Sicilian kingdom, the god Dionysius, disguised as a shepherd, woos away members of the kingdom, including the queen and eventually the king. Majewski, who also designed the ornate costumes and the fanciful sets, decreed the players adopt poses much like what is seen on huge Minoan jars. Singers stood with arms set in place or undulating like snakes while they sang and movement was at a snail’s pace. Emotions were conveyed through vocal inflection.
Dionysius’ honeyed words came with a dark undertone, so Majewski employed spotlights with the rest in shadows. Stage smoke in two acts created more illusions. A huge fountain, with the water acting as a backdrop, and imaginative night and dawn skies added to the mystery.
Baritone Adam Kruszewski as King Roger and soprano Iwona Hossa as his queen were very strong. He stood motionless, but you could hear the dismay, frustration, sternness and wonder in his voice. Hossa used her big voice to caress the Polish words or soar easily over the full company. Szlenkier did well as the shepherd but he projected little emotion. Both choruses supported the action very well.
Leon Botstein led a superlative sounding American Symphony Orchestra in lush music that was heavily influenced by Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel.
Another performance of the double bill is at 3 p.m. today.