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King Roger Op. 46 - Karol Szymanowski

Le Roi Roger original manuscript
Le Roi Roger original manuscript

Formally, King Roger combines the features of an opera, a musical drama and a mystery (oratory). It lacks a distinct dramatic plot, its three acts being static and differing only in the scenery and mood, and its outward, limited dramaturgy providing a platform to present the emotions, attitudes and conflicts of the protagonists. In fact, it is a drama about faith, and it shows three approaches to religion: institutional; a spontaneous movement of the worshippers; and individual contact of man and God.

The poetic symbolism, special expressiveness and unusual sound of Karol Szymanowski's King Roger make it an extraordinary and original composition that crowned the middle period in Szymanowski's music - a time when he was especially interested in antiquity and the Orient, and in particular in the Mediterranean culture, the fascination he developed during his trip to Sicily.

Szymanowski worked on The Shepherd (as the work was going to be called) for six years, from 1918 to 1924. The concept was born during Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's visit to Elisavetgrad, and it was to him that the composer entrusted the writing of the libretto after his own idea. Szymanowski had the libretto changed and amended many times before he made the first draft of the music in early 1920. In the course of that year Szymanowski outlined the piano part of acts I and II, and drafted act III the following year. It was not until 1924 that the score was completed, and the new title, King Roger, emerged in the meantime.

Mariusz Kwiecień as King Roger, photo: Ken Howard / The Santa Fe Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień as King Roger, photo: Ken Howard / The Santa Fe Opera


The story combines two themes: an Oriental and a Byzantine, and is set in Sicily ca. 1150. In the first, 'Byzantine' act, king Roger with his wife Roxana and advisor Edrisi learn during a mass in the Palermo cathedral of the risk posed to the Church by the founder of a new religion, the young and beautiful Shepherd. The king has the young man brought to the church and charged with offence against God. The crowd demands that the Shepherd be tried and sentenced to death. However, the King, Roxana and Edrisi are much impressed by his meekness and humility. The King sets the Shepherd free and orders him to subject himself to his judgment.

Act II, the so-called 'Oriental', takes place at the inner courtyard of the royal palace. While waiting for the Shepherd, the King confides in Edrisi his concern for Roxana's feelings. Roxana pleads for the Shepherd. He puts a spell on her and the courtiers, and they join in an ecstatic love dance. The King, however, is unmoved and orders the Shepherd imprisoned. The Shepherd easily breaks the heavy chains and calls for an expedition to the land of eternal freedom. Everybody, including Roxana, follows him. Only Roger and Edrisi remain in the palace. The King abdicates and, as a pilgrim, sets out to look for his wife and the Shepherd.

Act III, so-called 'Hellenistic', moves the plot to the ruins of an antique theatre in Syracuse where Roger and Edrisi arrive after a long journey. The King calls for Roxana. She first answers for afar and then appears before him and extols the Shepherd's cult. They start a sacrificial fire together. Soon the Shepherd in his true form - as Dionysus - enters the amphitheatre. Enraptured, Roger sings a hymn to sunrise.

The poetic symbolism is very important, the libretto being based on the idea of kinship between Christ and Dionysus. Upon initiation Roger, in mystic ecstasy, understands the divine unity of the Shepherd-Dionysus. This is also a reflection of Plato's concept of man's original androgenicity and of a search for harmony and unity.

King Roger Op. 46 is Szymanowski's second opera. One of the composer's greatest and most widely... Read more about: King Roger Op.46 and the Clash of the Gods

Analysis of Music

The plot is conveyed by music which creates a sense of the unreal and enhances it through long and slow vocal parts, soft and emotional melodics, and a variety of subtle orchestral sounds. Tadeusz A. Zieliński has seen in it

Slavic expressionism - one combining strange, mystical, often hot emotions with sensual sensitivity and softness of refined colours. [2]

The three acts, occurring in three different places, have three different kinds of music. The beginning of the opera has a Byzantine colour, the a cappella choruses evocative of the Orthodox choral singing, and the Shepherd's archaic-modal chant My God is as beautiful as myself constitutes the central part of Act I. The orchestral introduction of Act II moves us to the Orient, its vivid, mysterious and tense music based on the characteristic whole-tone, semi-tone and Arabic-Persian scales and on the succession of minor thirds and semitones. These are particularly audible in the famous Roxana's song 'Sleep, King Roger's bloody dreams', whose vocalize has numerous Oriental ornaments and melismas. Indeed, Roxana's song combines all of the important characteristics of Szymanowski's work: the seeming calm and internal tension, archaic sound and magic colours, mystery and the Oriental charm. The dramatic culmination, extremely expressive and modern-sounding, takes place in the scene of an Oriental, Bacchic dance ending with the captivity and miraculous freeing of the Shepherd.

The opera's last act brings music which is focused, intimate and poetic, and which abounds in subtle internal tensions on the one hand and in chromatisms and sharp, dissonant sounds on the other. Particularly moving is Roger's monologue in the ruins of the theatre - the expression of his dilemma, anxiety and uncertainty, the emotions which reach a climax when the Shepherd accompanied by Roxana and a crowd of the faithful appear at the altar. The diffusion and appeasement do not happen until the sunrise with its subtle and cheerful sounds crowned with the final C major chord.

First Productions and Recordings

King Roger was first produced by Adolf Popławski in the Grand Theatre in Warsaw and was first shown on stage on 19th June 1926 with Emil Młynarski conducting. The sets were designed by Wincenty Drabik and the cast included Eugeniusz Mossakowski as Roger, Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska as Roxana, Maurycy Janowski as Edrisi and Adam Dobosz as the Shepherd. Selected orchestral parts had been already been presented at the Warsaw Philharmonic in April 1924. Since the Warsaw premiere King Roger has been produced in the opera houses worldwide, starting from Duisburg, Germany in 1928, Prague, Bohemia, in 1932, and Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy, in 1949. A stage version was presented during the 1961 Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music.

Universal Edition published King Roger's piano extract and the Polish-language libretto in 1926. The same year saw a separate publication of Roxana's song from Act II Sleep, King Roger's bloody dreams for voice and orchestra and in Paweł Kochański's instrumentation for violin and piano. In 1954 Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne published Irena Garztecka's edition of Roxana's song for voice and piano, based on Szymanowski's recommendations noted down on Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska's copy of the piano extract. In 1962 the same publishing house published the Shepherd's song from Act I, My God is as beautiful as myself, again edited by Garztecka for voice and piano. King Roger's Polish language libretto with a German translation was published in 1928, followed by an Italian language version in 1949.

It was not until 1965 that the first complete recording of King Roger was released by Polskie Nagrania. The set of LPs featured Andrzej Hiolski, Hanna Rumowska, Zdzisław Nikodem, Kazimierz Pustelak, Marek Dąbrowski and Anna Malewicz-Madey as well as the Choir and Orchestra of the Warsaw Grand Theatre and the ZHP Children's Choir under Mieczysław Mierzejewski. That recording was relaunched on CDs by Olympia in 1989. In 1991 Koch-Schwann / Musica Mundi released a recording of a production starring Barbara Zagórzanka, Stanisław Kowalski, Florian Skulski, Zdzisław Nikodem, Jerzy Ostapiuk and Ryszard Racewicz with the Choir and Orchestra of the Warsaw Grand Theatre under Robert Satanowski. 1994 saw Marco Polo's release of a King Roger recording by Andrzej Hiolski, Wiesław Ochman, Barbara Zagórzanka, Henryk Grychnik, Leonard Andrzej Mróz and Anna Malewicz-Madey with the Cracow Philharmonic Boys' Choir and the Silesian Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under Karol Stryja. In 1998 Sir Simon Rattle recorded Szymanowski's opera for EMI with Elżbieta Szmytka, Philip Langridge, Thomas Hampson, Robert Gierlach, Jadwiga Rappé and Ryszard Minkiewicz and the Birmingham Choir and Symphony Orchestra. The latest release of King Roger is the 2004 one by CD Accord with Wojciech Drabowicz (now deceased) in the title role, Olga Pasiecznik as Roxana, Krzysztof Szmyt as Edrisi, Piotr Beczała as the Shepherd, Romuald Tesarowicz as the Archbishop and Stefania Toczyska as the Deaconess, with "Alla Polacca" Choir and the Choir and Orchestra of the Grand Theatre - National Opera in Warsaw under Jacek Kaspszyk. Made in 2003, this is a recording of one of the most interesting productions of Szymanowski's opera, done by Mariusz Treliński at the Warsaw Grand Theatre, with stage design by Boris Kudlička and costumes by Magdalena Tesławska and Paweł Grabarczyk.

There have been many separate recordings of Roxana's Song, both of the voice-and-orchestra version (of particular note are the ones by Ewa Bandrowska-Turska and Stefania Woytowicz, both for Polskie Nagrania, by Zdzisława Donat for Veriton and Barbara Zagórzanka for Marco Polo) and of the violin-and-piano transcription (by Eugenia Umińska and Jerzy Lefeld for Columbia, Ida Haendel and Adela Kotowska for Decca, Wanda Wiłkomirska and Tadeusz Chmielewski for Polskie Nagrania, Kaja Danczowska and Krystian Zimerman for Deutsche Grammophon) as well as of its symphonic orchestration by Grzegorz Fitelberg (Polskie Nagrania and American Harmonia, awaiting release).

[1]"Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja" / Letters, Vol. IV: 1932-1937, part 1, p. 327, letter of 27th Oct. 1932 to Zofia Kochańska, ed. Teresa Chylińska, PWM, Kraków 2002.
[2] Tadeusz A. Zieliński, "Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza", PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 187.

Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.

Tags: king rogerpolish composers of the 20th centuryKing Roger Op. 46le roi roger

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