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Król Roger

King Roger

Karol Szymanowski 1882-1937

Opera in three acts
Libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and the composer
First performed June 19 1926, Teatr Wielki, Warsaw

Sung in Polish with German and English surtitles. ca. 1hr 40mins, with no interval
Introduction, in German, in the Holzfoyer 30 minutes before performances begin

King Roger rules Sicily. During mass the archbishop, deaconess and people demand that he not allow morals to deline. They feel threatened by an unknown shepherd, who praises another God and spreads confusion. Queen Roxana asks Roger to listen to the shepherd, who talks about his God of happiness, love and life. While Roxana is mesmerised by his words, the archbishop, deaconess and people demand that he be put to death. King Roger consents to the shepherd's execution. Edrisi, the King's adviser, cautions reconciliation. Roger is confused. He rescinds the death sentence and sets the shepherd free, ordering him to come back in the evening to appear before him, his judge. Roger, and Edrisi, waits for the shepherd full of doubts and fear. His words about another way of life have churned him up. Roxana tries to calm him down and begs for mercy for the shepherd. When he appears, Roger bombards him with questions about his God and origins. The King accuses the shepherd of blasphemy, but turns out to be the loser. Roxana wants to follow the shepherd, but is held back by Roger. He attempts to have the shepherd arrested, but he frees himself and commands the people to follow him. Roxana joins them. The King turns his back on sovereignty. Roger makes his own, uncertain way through a world of night and dreams. Roxana answers his desperate call. Roger's questions about the shepherd make him confront his own longings. He hears the shepherd in a dream that hasn't ended yet. He vanishes. At daybreak Roxana leaves too. Roger, inwardly transformed, is left alone.

How could the powers of chaos and order, good sense, domination by ones own physical urges be combined, in a creative way? This question, combined with doubts, contradictions, experiments, ecstasies and failure, accompanied the life and world of the Polish composer Karol Szymanosky. Although he is regarded as a key figure of 20th century music, his works are seldom performed.

In Krol Roger, Szymanowski chose the times of the Norman King Roger II's rule over Sicily as the background for a symbolic story in which variations of Euripides' Bacchae are transposed into a Christian setting: Roger rules several, different cultures, professes to be a rationalist while being dependant on the rigid, Byzantine influenced church. His power is questioned by an unknown shepherd, a mixture of earth-spirit, wandering preacher and God, Christ, Dionysos and Eros. He founds his own cult and travels the land with his followers. Talking about a beautiful young god, he seduces the people, then Queen Roxana.

The dyionistic, almost ecstatic music when the shepherd first appears characterises the entire second act, culminating in Bassarids dancing in ecstasy. This clashes with staunchly catholic tradition, characterised by Szymanowski by the use of rigid harmonic church music from the Middle Ages. Two worlds come into conflict, opposing powers exposed. A dramatic development which culminates in the last two minutes of the work, when Roger comes face to face with his downfall.