Why have we named this guide ‘A Mortals Guide’? Because King Roger is not about things happening on Earth between humans. The action is just a mere pretext for a philosophical treaty about the eternal rivalry between intelligence and instinct. Let’s break it down to the basics.
1. Who composed it?
2. Is it indispensable to know the libretto by heart before attending a staging?
3. Why is its action set in Sicily?
4. How to interpret King Roger?
5. How much of it is about religion?
6. How should the final scene be interpreted?
7. Is it Szymanowski’s most beloved work?
8. Where is it going to be staged next?
Who composed it?
Karol Szymanowski – one of the most, if not the most, important Polish composers of the early 20th century – composed King Roger. You can take a brief walk through his life and most important works using this interactive time-line:
Click here to watch the interactive timeline in a full screen mode
It took Szymanowski almost six years to complete King Roger, between 1918 and 1924. During these years, Szymanowski’s material and intellectual world had fallen apart. His family estate and shelter, Tymoszówka, was turned to ash by the Bolshevik revolution. Szymanowski's musical style was undergoing a transformation, from a period vaguely inspired by the cultures of the orient and antiquity to the development of a national style, drawing inspiration from Polish folklore and Igor Stravinsky’s primitivism in music. King Roger is the very last work of the second period of Szymanowski’s career.
Is it indispensable to know the libretto by heart before attending a staging?
There is little conventional action in King Roger, no traditional love affair. The minimalist plot is set in Sicily, in the court of the historical King Roger. The main action of the opera is that the Catholic King learns about the presence of a Shepherd – the founder of a new religion. He asks his guards to bring him to the court and they start a complicated relationship which is a blend of rivalry and philosophical discussion as well as shared fascination and a psychological game.
The three-act libretto, co-written by Szymanowski and acclaimed Polish poet and writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, gives the foundation for something more than just the action. King Roger can be interpreted on three different levels: a study of the sources of 20th-century European culture, a clash of two orders (the order of intellect and the order of instinct) and finally a discussion on different forms of religion.
The libretto was beautifully summarised by Tomasz Cyz in his work The Return of the Dionysus:
God is invoked with a prayer. God – disguised as a shepherd – arrives and carries away the people. The King is left alone. King Roger, head of the state, head of the church, head of his clan. Now he has to become a pilgrim – obedient, humiliated, abandoned. There’s only one challenge left for him – the final journey to the holy place. In order to know. To die. To survive.
Why is its action set in Sicily?
The action is set on the isle of Sicily because Szymanowski, who was a keen traveller, was fascinated with the Mediterranean region as a cultural melting pot of three civilizations: Byzantine, Oriental and Hellenic. This is why each of the three acts has a very strong system of features referring to each of these three cultures. For example, Act I starts with a cappella choruses evocative of Orthodox choral singing, and the Shepherd's archaic-modal chant My God is as Beautiful as Myself constitutes its central part. Act II has easily distinguishable Oriental melisma and ornaments and touches the characteristic subject of the trance in religion and love. The third act is set in the ruins of an antic theatre which directly moves viewers to the Hellenic cultural circle.
The symbols evoking each of the three cultures are numerous and exposed (or hidden) not only in the musical and visual layers of the work but also in the lyrics and philosophical aspect. Looking for and discovering them is fascinating and allows a viewer to better understand the complexity of Szymanowski’s work.
How to interpret King Roger?
In his Birth of the Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche established the concept of the fundamental dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, between instinct and intellect, between chaos and order, between reason and irrationality. Nietzsche’s philosophy had a very strong influence on the entire generation of early 20th-century artists and thinkers. Szymanowski and Iwaszkiewicz were no exception to this and they decided to build King Roger’s intrigue on this concept.
In the opera, the Shepherd, the prophet of the new religion, the one who offers pleasure, community and trance to King Rogers’ subjects, represents the Dionysian ideal. He is opposed by King Roger and his learned advisor – Edrisi – who are the defenders of the status quo and who represent institutionalized religion and order. His role evolves throughout the opera. In the beginning, he is the ruler and the judge but successively, the Dionysian Shepherd takes over control of his people and turns the roles around. Finally, it’s King Roger who comes as a pilgrim to the Shepherd's camp and is judged by him. Typically for a work drawing part of its symbolism from a Greek tragedy, the main protagonists' clash is enhanced by an ambiguous rivalry for Queen Roxanna’s (Roger’s wife).
How much of it is about religion?
Finally, King Roger is often interpreted as a drama on the subject of faith. It presents the tension between three aspects of religion and different ways of worshipping the God. The first, institutionalised religion, is represented in the opening scene of the Act I by King Roger and his clergymen. Soon, the Shepherd enters and incarnates religion as a spontaneous movement of zealots. Finally, in the very last scene, King Roger gives a monologue to the rising sun (the symbol of Apollo), which is interpreted as the image of religion as an individual contact between man and God. Just like Dionysian and Apollonian ideals, these types of religion cannot co-exist and by colliding, they evoke conflict; between man but also inside a man – such as King Roger, a Hamletian ruler, not hesitant to go far to search for the answer to fundamental philosophical questions.
How should the final scene be interpreted?
The most confusing part of the opera is its final scene. Iwaszkiewicz wanted King Roger to follow the Shepherd and join his cult but Szymanowski decided to make him stand by his initial ideals. It’s finally Roxanna who throws herself into the abyss of the Dionysian cult while Roger stays behind with Edrisi, worshipping the rising sun. This symbolic gesture has been interpreted in many different ways. Is it a symbol of his marriage with nature? Glorification of Apollo? A sign of Rogers’ hard won victory that leaves him alone but cleansed and strengthened? The question remains unanswered leaving each director and listener to come up with his own interpretation.
Is it Szymanowski’s most beloved work?
Szymanowski opinion about King Roger is a fascinating case because the work is often described as his favourite, while elsewhere, quotes of him cursing it can be found. The explanation for this is that the final work on King Roger was a painstaking process, preventing Szymanowski from fully devoting himself to his new ideas – i.e., composing the ballet-pantomime Harnasie. In August 1924, he wrote to his friend:
I got down to finishing King Roger with plenty of energy but it sticks in my throat! It bores me to death because I have a craving for something else.
Time is a great healer, however. In the late 1920s, the day after King Roger’s staging in Prague, Szymanowski said:
I haven’t opened the score for 4 or 5 years, so I completely forgot the music! I listened to it as to something new and foreign and… that was really thrilling (especially Act II)! It can be compared with nothing else in my music […] with anything I wrote after King Roger. The sound of the orchestra and choir is arresting in its tension. I can hardly recover from the shock and sorrow that it is a matter of the past, that I am no longer able to write anything comparable.
Where is it going to be staged next?
For the first time, King Roger will be showcased on the stage of the Royal Opera House in May 2015. The show is directed by Kasper Holten, while the title role will be performed by Mariusz Kwiecień. It is said to be one of the most eagerly anticipated events of this opera season in London.
The première of King Roger is scheduled for 1st May 2015 at 7.30pm. Subsequent shows will be performed on the 6th, 12th and 19th May (at 7.30pm) and on the 9th and 16th May (at 7pm).