The idea for an opera about a sensitive ruler and a mysterious shepherd began to take root in Szymanowski’s imagination in 1918 in Ukraine, when the war cut him off from Europe and the revolution destroyed his home manor at Tymoszówka. He was surrounded by smouldering ruins; as he put it: “a bloody, nightmarish chaos”, and so he would escape into the memories of his two journeys to Sicily, to the images of the royal palace in Palermo, the old temples, into the glow and the colours of the South. He was relating these experiences to a young cousin – the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who, enchanted by the magic of the composer’s words, became co-author of the libretto. They were planning it during conversations in June 1918 in Elisavetgrad, and on a beach in Odessa in September of that year. Iwaszkiewicz conveys the atmosphere of these moments in a poem Do Karola Szymanowskiego [To Karol Szymanowski], written ten years later:
“…We talked, warmed with the light and the reverie,
A King of far-away Sicily, the unknown Roger,
Mixing the gold of the East with the silver of the Evening,
Plays for us the Vespers bells of fragrant Palermo…”
Szymanowski gives the description of the historical locations of Palermo, where the action of the opera takes place, in the stage instructions to the first two acts. This is the Byzantian Palatine Chapel, where “above the altar with a gigantic mosaic icon of Christ with a thin face” rises the “enormous vault of the apse” and “thousands of candles glow in the candelabras hung ceiling” – while the palace courtyard is rich in “intricate lines of multicoloured arabesques”, “granite columns”, “carpets and rugs”, “alabaster lamps.” In the twelfth century the ruler of Sicily, Roger II, really did live in these places, and an Arab scholar, al-Idrisi, called Edrisi in the opera, did work at his side. However, the plot of the whole work is more strongly rooted in the literature of that era than in its history. It is also rooted in the Sicilian landscape; in Act III there were to be visible the ruins of an antique theatre: “semicircles of benches hewn in stone”, “growing among the ruins abundant weeds, field flowers and fresh grass.” When composing, Szymanowski followed his image of the scene: in the manuscript he had even sketched the architecture of the courtyard for the Second Act.. His vision of the “enormous theatre” did not, however, relate to any actual scene. He was deeply fascinated with the Orient and the culture of ancient Greece, so strong in the Young Poland period, and his colouristic sensitivity to sound had been awakened by the French impressionists.
The libretto, born out of his conversations with Iwaszkiewicz and their later correspondence, is totally original and does not draw on any ready drama or novel. The composer eventually finished it by himself, immersed in work over a number of years, first on the piano sketch and then on the score of the work, which he described as a “Sicilian drama”, “musical drama”, “misterium” or “spectacle”, avoiding the term “opera.” It was given the title King Roger. The plot takes place during one night, from the sunset in the First Act to the dawn in the Third. It begins with muted sounds of a gong, followed by the superb sound of a cappella choirs (which in places consist of ten voices!) of priests, nuns, courtiers, knights and clerics, lightly stylised to recall old Orthodox church and plainchant vocal forms. The crowd demands that the King should punish the young Shepherd, who has come from the mountains and incites the people. Brought in by the guards, the Shepherd sings a seductive song (“My god is as beautiful as I…”), written in a high register tenor voice. Roger allows him to leave, but requires him to return for a “judgment.”
The mood of evening expectancy, which opens the Second Act, is painted by Szymanowski with an enchanting tissue of restless sounds. The Queen sings the breathtakingly beautiful, Kołysanka Roksany [Roxana's Lullaby] (“Sleep, King Roger’s blood-steeped dreams”); with this song, she hopes to turn her husband’s anger into gentleness towards the strange young man. The song, with its Eastern melismas, is a show piece for lyrical sopranos. The Shepherd arrives with musicians. His followers arrive and dance in ecstasy; Roxana, moved, joins them. The King orders the Shepherd to be put in chains, but the Shepherd breaks his bonds with a mysterious power and leaves, free, with a retinue and the queen; this time it is he who calls Roger “for judgment.” In the Third Act the King, as a pilgrim, arrives with his faithful Edrisi at a ritual to honour the Shepherd-Dionysius. Roxana’s voice responds to the King’s calls, but he understands that he has lost her. Being lured by the Shepherd to sing and dance around the sacred fire, although excited, he cannot accept the new god’s world as his own. With first light everything disappears. Roger intones the Hymn do Słońca [Anthem of the Sun], in which the hero’s dramatic baritone emerges, like hot brilliance, from the shimmering sound of the orchestra.
In this work, Szymanowski presents the conflict between reason and instinct which takes place in the human soul. Undoubtedly this is not a rewarding subject for an opera, but it does find some justification in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, which had a strong influence on the spirituality of Szymanowski’s generation. In his essay The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music Nietzsche proposed the famous distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in art. For him, Apollo is the god of illusion and intellectual distance from the world (reason), while Dionysius leads to the experience of the highest, sensual truth of existence (instinct). In the opera King Roger reason is personified by the priests, the adviser Edrisi and the whole court with queen Roxana, while instinct is the Shepherd, who preaches another faith. To the King’s despair, Roxana follows the voice of instinct and joins the Shepherd’s retinue. On the other hand, Roger, after hesitating (which takes three acts…), in the finale turns to the Sun – Apollo’s symbolic attribute: “from the depth of loneliness, from the abyss of my power, I will tear out my clear heart and offer it to the sun.”
The performance of King Roger was produced at Warsaw Opera by the always reliable Emil Młynarski The soloist’s tutor at that time, Ilza Rodzińska (first wife of the conductor Artur Rodziński) wrote in her reminiscences about the difficulties involved in the four months of rehearsals. Szymanowski participated in those as well. He wrote in a letter: “however modest I am, I have to admit that the performance with the orchestra, with the choirs, creates at time a simply uncanny impression”. The first performance took place on 19 June 1926. The part of Roxana was sung by the composer’s sister, Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, and that of the Shepherd by the vocally multitalented and well-built Adam Dobosz. Roger was sung by Eugeniusz Mossakowski, gifted with a strong and beautiful voice. Wincent Drabik’s stage set met with enthusiastic applause. Szymanowski was called onto the stage after the Second Act. After the premiere, there was widespread reaction from the press. Critics and reviewers – and at that time these included prominent composers, such as Stanisław Niewiadomski, Józef Wertheim, Adam Wieniawski – appreciated the music and the performance, and on the whole interpreted the unusual content quite sensibly. The most apt was the response of Henryk Opieński: “The libretto of King Roger is a dramatic poem in which there is no romance, no love duet, no killing, no duel, in a word, none of those factors which are allegedly essential for an operatic ‘plot’. The content, distributed over three acts, is the victory of the Dionysian idea of life over a king who is imprisoned by the chains of Byzantine religious rigour, his wife, his entourage and, lastly, the whole of his people”.
The stage history of King Roger demonstrated the attractiveness of the work. Since the premiere, the opera has been staged 26 times, in Poland and literally throughout the whole world, including Long Beach (1988), Buffalo and Detroit (1992) in the USA , Sydney (1990, ballet version), as well as three times in the place where the action of the opera takes place – in Palermo (1949, 1992, 2005). It appears that the universal theme of the opera made it possible to depict, through its music and story, not only the modernistic vision of the antique world, of the sumptuousness of Byzantium, the climate of Art Nouveau and decadence, organically written into the libretto, but also the seduction of the populace by idols of the popculture, the hippie movement, sectarian threat, problems of Christianity, destruction of culture in the flames of wars, and the paths of our civilisation leading to the abyss of nothingness when Dionysius takes on the features of Thanatos – the god of death.
Szymanowski’s work has already been recorded four times on CD by such companies as Olympia, Naxos, EMI Classics and CD Accord. The Olymipia record preserves for posterity the historic performance of one of the greatest Polish singers of the twentieth century: Andrzej Hiolski as King Roger.
King Roger at Prague – Szymanowski