Review: King Roger Makes a Spellbinding Premiere at Harris Theater

I was put under a spell on Friday. King Roger by the Chicago Opera Theater (COT) was the spellbinding work that eased my anxiety from sitting in a traffic snarl trying to get to the Harris Theater. I was unaware that the city Christmas tree was being lit that day in Millennium Park and the hordes of revelers pouring onto Michigan Avenue put me on edge. Once we settled into our seats, the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski took me to another world. King Roger was composed in 1924 by Szymanowski, who co-write the libretto with Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.

This production was directed by Dylan Evans, who is a veteran of COT and has worked with the Chicago Summer Opera and the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya has conducted dozens of world premieres and is a sought-after maestra of avant-garde productions and new stagings of operas. King Roger is based on the real-life Roger II of Sicily who rose to the throne in 1130 while under the scrutiny of the Catholic Church. He threatened the papacy’s power in Europe, which held most of Italy under its rule. This was 300 years before the Inquisition and Roger II held a diverse court with Arabic and other religious influences. Szymanowski’s music for King Roger has sweeping phrases influenced by Arabic and other non-Christian music.

L-R: David Congolese, Mariusz Godlewski, Tyrone Chambers II, and Iwona Sabotka. Photo By Michael Brosilow.

Szymanowski and Iwaszkiewicz gave King Roger a moral struggle between the staid and mysterious Christianity of Byzantine times and the sensual world of pagan worship. Roger is sung by Polish baritone Mariusz Godlewski with a powerful acting range and vocal clarity. Iwona Sabotka makes her COT debut as Queen Roxana, who is spellbound by the mysterious Shepherd (Tyrone Chambers II). Sabotka possesses a velvety soprano that eases into the upper register of Szymanowski’s bel canto leaning music. Chambers has a wonderful stage presence with a comic edge. His tenor is also well-suited to the baroque/bel canto role.

Paul Chwe MinChui An has a powerful presence as the King’s adviser, who is suspicious of the Shepherd. David Cangelosi as the King’s best friend gives a spotlight performance as the conflicted courtier. Rounding out the cast is Alissa Anderson as the Deaconess. She does not have a large role but her soprano soars in the first act as one who calls for the Shepherd to be imprisoned as an apostate invading their Christian world.

L-R: Iwona Sabotka, Mariusz Godlewski, Tyrone Chambers II. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This production of King Roger is accompanied by a huge chorus made up of internationally known singers and members of Uniting Voices of Chicago formerly known as the Chicago Children’s Chorus. The COT staging is rather austere allowing the singing to whet the imagination of the audience. The language is quite rococo with vivid imagery and elaborate phrasing. The Shepherd creates a sensual image of spirituality that is in opposition to the Orthodox and Catholic churches of that time. Tradition dictated that God was a vengeful entity to be worshiped in fear.

I was expecting a much more elaborate staging because of the era when churches were gilded and flush with reliquaries and icons. I was quite pleased with the austerity of the stage and the simplicity of the props. It was more Zen than Byzantine. The music and voices were central to the story allowing the visual to form in the imagination of the viewer. Scenic designer William Boles created an angular marble centerpiece that was multipurpose for all parts of the journey. Costume designer and director Brenda Winstead dressed Roxana in flowing gowns and the Shepherd in Indian-influenced tunics in white or saffron hues. All of the other characters were dressed austerely in black and white.

I recommend King Roger for the richly layered music and for the story, which is unlike anything I have seen in opera. Also, it is sung in Polish, which is rare in operatic music as most Slavic language operas are in Russian. It was extra cool because Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. COT is known for new work and rarities such as King Roger. If you cannot see it in person, you should listen to your favorite streaming service or music player. King Roger plays its second and final performance today, November 20, at 3pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. It is a wonderful venue with excellent acoustics.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.

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