King Roger Op. 46 is Szymanowski's second opera. One of the composer's greatest and most widely discussed works, it is perhaps his magnum opus.
The Sheherd – The Key to Understanding the Symbolism
As Zofia Helman writes in the introduction to vol. 23 of the collection of Szymanowski's works published by PWM:
King Roger does not represent the pure opera genre, it is more on the border of opera and musical drama, and contains oratorio elements as well, and even some features of a mystery play.
The key to understanding the symbolism of this work is the Shepherd – an operatic reincarnation of Dionysus, who was the central figure of Szymanowski's intellectual and moral world. The driving force of the work is the complicated and ambiguous relations that begin developing between the Shepherd and the title character – King Roger, who is modelled on a historical figure. The choice of place is also extremely important. The piece (one cannot really speak of a plot in the traditional sense here) is set in Sicily – an extraordinary island at the crossroads of east and west, Asia, Africa and Europe. This has made it possible to create a multicultural, or rather supracultural space for the protagonists to move in. The opera is made up of 3 acts: one Byzantine, one Arab-Indian, and one ancient. This also opens up a space outside time, which creates a certain analogy with the concept of time that Wagner proposed in Parsifal.
The main conflict develops in the clash of two elements: the Dionysian – expressed in sensual debauchery and orgiastic wildness, and the Apolline with its cult of pure beauty and symbolism of light. Even interpreting these opposite tendencies caused a conflict between the composer and the author of the libretto's initial concept – Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. For the latter, the experience of things Dionysian was a tragic one, releasing the dark forces of nature and carrying an element of infernal beauty – very ambiguous in its immorality. Szymanowski – the gentle aesthete – "de-demonized" his Dionysus a little, crossing him not only with the gentle Apollo and the sensual Eros, but also – much more controversially – with Christ. This synthesis, undoubtedly blasphemous from the Christian point of view, returned later in the work of some 20th-century artists – its dark and obsessive variation can be found in the work of Pier Paolo Passolini, for example.
The literary model for King Roger was Euripides' play The Bacchantes (which later was also the basis for Hans Werner Henze's opera), the prose of Walter Pater, and Basilissa Teofanu – a play by Miciński. The works of Nietzsche, who was very dear to Szymanowski, were of fundamental importance too, as were the interpretations of antiquity offered by Professor Tadeusz Zieliński, a historian and the composer's contemporary. It is also impossible not to notice the influence of Wilde's personality.
The Opera's Aesthetic Concept
The opera's aesthetic concept had been outlined earlier, in Szymanowski's unfinished novel Efebos (1918-1919). The process of composing the music was unusually long. Six whole years passed between the first mentions of the work in 1918 and the writing of the final note. Practically the whole of Szymanowski's world fell apart during this time - both his physical world, as the house in Tymoszówka burned down, and his intellectual world. The modernist trends that had such a strong impact on King Roger seemed to be a faded value of the past by the 1920's. Both Szymanowski and Iwaszkiewicz felt they were working on an aesthetically belated piece. Actually, the composer made some fundamental changes to the basic principles of his music at the time - his new works were the children of historic transformations. Patriotic sentiments were awakening. Poland had returned to the map of Europe, and the composer began seeking a national identity for his music. He composed Słopiewnie / Wordsong, Rymy Dziecięce / Children's Rhymes, and highland culture began exuding its barbarian charm. In these new times King Roger, so cosmopolitan and entangled in an Art Nouveau decadence, seemed to belong to a past that was irrevocably lost.
Despite everything though, the work was completed. The final act is slightly different from the other two - its orchestral texture is lucid, the harmony makes greater use of modalism, and the previously impressionistic tone of the orchestration undergoes a degree of monochromatization. This is not a problem, though. Because each act unfolds in a different cultural space, the transforming music can only emphasize the title character's special journey in search of the truth about himself.
It has been said of King Roger that it is a philosophical opera. It is also perceived as a moral treatise, akin to Tippet's oratorio Child of our time. It is also, however, a work saturated with a sophisticated psychologism. The British director Andrew Porter, who staged the opera at the English National Opera in London, reduced the work's three-act structure to three meetings with Dionysus, to an almost archetypal concept of three tests - three initiations. In act one, Roger invites the god to a judgement, in act two he is judged himself in the course of a long confrontation, and in the final act, as a searching pilgrim he squares accounts with him in his own conscience.
The Echo of Wagner
Christopher Palmer has also pointed out an extremely interesting aspect of the middle act. In a very interesting way, Szymanowski refers in it to the concept of act two of Wagner's Tristan - a work that was extremely close to his heart all his life. It happens during Roger's second meeting with the Shepherd. There is a similar mood of almost feverish anticipation here, an unusual tension in the orchestra, a rapid pulse of the rhythm. The meeting of the protagonists is accompanied by a very Tristanesque "Hornerschall in der Ferne" effect. Just like between the Mediaeval lovers, a space of intensive psychological influence is created between the characters. The royal spouse Roxana is above it all (literally, as she sings from afar, and symbolically) - present and absent at the same time, almost the same as Brangane. Roger-Tristan also has a confidant - Edrisi, who is very close in concept to Kurwenal. The entire similarity is supplemented by the symbolism of the night, which both composers apply very subtly. The idea for the start of the opera is also Wagnerian. The excellent idea to open the work with the massive sound of austere Orthodox liturgical chants was taken from Miciński's Basilissa Teofanu. This drama by the poet whom Szymanowski liked so much opens with a chorus: we hear the "Hymn of the Monachs", immediately followed by the "singing of boys and male psalts". The musical arrangement of this fragment reveals the composer's great aptitude for archaization. The organum and faux bourdon techniques applied here will soon return in Stabat Mater. The sound production on the other hand owes a lot to Parsifal. The way in which the male chorus is combined with the boys' voices is similar. The space of musical sacrum is evoked in a similar way.
There remains the very interesting and fundamental problem of act three. In it, Iwaszkiewicz wanted
Roger not only to find Dionysus in the ruins of the old theatre, but to follow him and then - to throw himself into the abyss of a Dionysian mysterious cult, leaving Edrisi and Roxana on the stage. This went against history, but was more logical dramatically. Roger not only recognized Dionysus in the Shepherd, but followed him into the darkness, abandoning everything for him.
As work on the composition continued, Szymanowski changed the ending. It is Roxana dressed as a bacchante who ultimately follows Dionysus, and is lost in the depths of darkness. Roger stays behind with Edrisi, worshipping the rising sun. This symbolic gesture has been interpreted in many different ways. Edward Boniecki speaks of
a marriage with Nature in a gesture that symbolizes the heart being torn out and sacrificed to the Sun. With this gesture Roger destroys the wall of loneliness and becomes one with the cosmos, uniting with the Shepherd-God - Dionysus.
Others see the ending as an attempt to come away from Dionysus. Andrew Porter speaks directly of the glorification of Apollo in the rising sun. He adds:
verbally the drama is mysterious, as if unfinished, but the composer conveys its clear sense through the music: though abandoned, Roger is cleansed and strengthened.
The problem is, the music is also ambiguous. Roger's final monologue seems to end in a complete apotheosis. The king's ecstatic song heads for the C Major key - the age-old musical symbol of clarity. Jim Samson, who studied Szymanowski's music in depth, points to the rather "unconvincing" sound of the final triad, which gives the impression of a premature conclusion. Skriabin's Prometheus, a work that is aesthetically akin to Roger, ends in a similarly strange way.
Szymanowski juxtaposes the finale's Apolline solarization with his own characteristic sound symbols of Dionysus - the sound of the tam-tam and the tambourine. The C Major key is also the goal and fulfilment of the slightly earlier Symphony No. 3, where it symbolizes a pantheistic unity with nature and the height of erotic-mystical transcendence. The finale of Roger is thus a strange, not quite intelligible synthesis of all these elements - a synthesis accomplished in the rays of the sun whose symbolism keeps being "obscured". The victory over Dionysus is only seeming. Meanwhile, in Micinski's play the words of Basilissa, who was completely unified with the dark deity, were unequivocal: "My sons, love me and the Sun, and if you find that difficult to do one day - then only the Sun".The final sentence is Choreina's, and leaves not even a shadow of a doubt: "You - The Great All - Dionysus - will be resurrected".
Devout singing can be heard from the Sicilian cathedral. Enter King Roger with his retinue. The clergy ask him to forbid the spreading of harmful tales among the people. Edrisi the wise man says that an unknown Shepherd is spreading faith in a new god. The clergy demand that Roger order the Shepherd to be captured, but Roxana, the king's beloved, stands up for him. She asks that the king hear out the Shepherd, who is young and charming. The Shepherd enters and describes his young and beautiful god. Everyone finds the tale interesting, especially Roxana. Despite the insistence of the clergy and the courtiers, the king sets the Shepherd free. However, he tells him to come to the castle in the evening. Sensing disaster, the people plead for God's mercy.
At the palace, Roger waits impatiently for the Shepherd. Edrisi waits with him. Finally the sound of zithers and drums can be heard from afar. It is the Shepherd approaching with his retinue. He finally arrives and greets the king in the name of eternal love. He says he has come from afar, from the Ganges, and has learned his magic from his god. Roger is horrified at this pagan talk, but again Roxana's soothing voice is heard. The Shepherd's retinue begins a magical melody - the young man's eyes meet Roxana's and enchant her. At first Roger is intoxicated as well, but he comes to his senses - he calls the guards and orders them to tie up the Shepherd, who throws off the bonds, however, and leaves, followed by all the courtiers and Roxana. In despair, the king watches them go and, crushed, sets off as well.
King Roger and Edrisi arrive in the ruins of an old Sicilian theatre. The music of the Shepherd's group can be heard from the distance. Roger looks for Roxana. She responds from afar, welcoming the arrivals. The Shepherd also calls them. They approach the ruins, and Roxana lights a sacrificial fire in front of the altar. Roger also takes part in the sacrifice, the stage fills up. As the dawn breaks, the Shepherd turns into the god Dionysus, and his retinue into maenads and bacchantes. Roxana dances with the others - plunged into ecstasy, the crowd moves away. King Roger and Edrisi are left standing - the king raises his arms to the sun and greets it as the source of life.
(Libretto synopsis compiled from Karol Stromenger's Przewodnik Operowy / Opera Guide)
Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.