Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (1926)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes.

My surname is of Sicilian origin, and the island is somewhat notorious for poverty and organized crime that it is sometimes a shock to remember that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Sicily was actually one of the most cosmopolitan and wealthiest regions of the Mediterranean. This would have been between the Arab conquest of the island (from 826) and the throwing off of the French in 1282 (during the event known as the Sicilian Vespers, yes, it is an actual historical incident, not just a Verdi opera!). In between this was a Norman period (starting from 999, nearly a century before Roger was born, however during the reign of Roger, Sicily was elevated from a Norman county to an independent kingdom, which it technically remained until 1816). After 1282, Sicily was ruled by Aragon, and it was during this period that the economic decline of the island occurred since the Spanish were more interested in enforcing Catholicism on the island than in its economic well being (so much for claims that white people only oppress non-white people, we do it to each other!). Prior to that point, the island was an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse place where Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Sunni Islam (although the Shiite Fatimids once had control of parts of the island), and Judaism peacefully (for the most part) flourished. Up until this point, the island had been mostly Greek-speaking and Greek Orthodox Christian, the Normans introduced (or re-introduced depending on one’s interpretation) the Latin language and Roman Catholicism to the island. During Roger’s reign, French, English, Scandinavian, and Northern Italian immigration to the island significantly modified the genetic structure of the island.

Fast forward to the 20th century and Karol Szymanowski, famous Polish composer, fell in love with the Mediterranean world, and this opera reflects three major sub-sections in each act (Byzantium, Arabia and India, and the Greco-Roman world). Add to that some Slavonic folk melodies from the Tatra Mountains (the border between Poland and Slovakia, where Szymanowski had a vacation retreat) and you get this opera. Oh, and homoeroticism because Szymanowski was gay and part of the narrative is taken from a lost novel he wrote entitled Ephebos. So Roger starts to fall in love with the mysterious tenor Shepherd, although this is made into a metaphor for a conflict between Christianity (represented by Roger) and Paganism (represented by the Shepherd). Incidentally, the role of Queen Roxana was created by Szymanowski’s sister Stanislawa.

SETTING: Palermo, between 1130 and 1150. King Roger (baritone) is told by his Archbishop (bass) to have a mysterious Shepherd (tenor) executed for blasphemy (although his real crime appears to be being a lascivious bisexual). His Queen, Roxana (soprano) pleads that her husband hear out the Shepherd before passing sentence. This results in Roger experiencing an Androphile erotic attack when the Shepherd seduces almost everyone, including Roxana, with what appears to be a Hindu (?) cultus and his tenorial allure. Eventually, only Roger and his advisor Edrisi (tenor) resist complete temptation and ruin.

There is also a Deaconess (contralto) who appears in act one. Many may not know but the Byzantine Church historically had ordained female deacons, the practice was mostly abandoned after the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, but even today there are Eastern Orthodox nuns (almost all Greek, the practice was never adopted by the Slavic churches) in convents who serve as deaconesses.

So that is your history lesson for the day, on with the show!


ACT 1: The interior of Palermo Cathedral. (25 minutes)

0: Hagios Kyrios The very long introductory scene *** which subtly (it starts off just with gong sounds which come back at the end of the act) but powerfully depicts a Byzantine liturgy in media res as the chorus of worshippers (and the occasional soloist and children’s chorus) overwhelms the procedings as the basic premise of the meeting between Roger and the (homo?) erotic Shepherd gets set up: the Archbishop asks for an execution warrant, everyone else is fine with it except Roxana who wants her husband to hear out the man before killing him.

9, 18: Ktos ty? The Shepherd is brought to Roger ** and he speaks very cryptically (his first response is that his God is as beautiful as he is). The tenor is eery here as he goes over his credo (he does it again in act two). Roger slowly starts to appear to be falling in love with him, although he is equally trying to resist temptation. Edrisi tries to warn Roger not to be too hasty in executing the man (and Roxana is almost making a joke out of the man), but the latter initially pronounces a death sentence before inviting the Shepherd to the palace that evening for final judgement. The chorus is ecstatic and there is a brief musical explosion ***. The Shepherd accepts, the chorus gets a couple more outbursts, and the Shepherd tries finishing off the act with more of his dreamy talk about his mountain home country, but the chorus gets the last word.

ACT 2: The Palace, that evening. (34 minutes)

0: The entr’acte ** sets up further chromaticism as Roger vents in front of Edrisi and Roxana (who have both fallen for the Shepherd already). This can get a bit overwhelming with the chromatics.

6: On! The Shepherd and his disciples are heard dancing off-stage, which prompts a long aria (the most famous in the entire score) from Roxana with Orientalist pretensions of the Arab persuasion as she goes over how much she wants the Shepherd to do things to her ***. Although at first it seems like this too will be chromatic, it is actually the one completely modal piece in the score.

12: On! Roger gets twenty-questions out of the erotic Shepherd ** in a return to the chromaticism in a heavy interview. Vaguely, he is from India. Roxana tries to comfort him, but they are both in the same situation, the only difference is that he is resisting.

20: The Shepherd reveals that he is the leader of a personality cult. Lilting tenor vocals can’t make anything else out of it *.

22: They all dance (vaguely Indian music), except Roger **. Roxana is lost completely.

28: Sluchajcie! The Shepherd takes over ***, Roger can only watch in horror, and ends up kissing him. The Shepherd departs, with Roxana. Edrisi and Roger realize that the King must go and follow them (although why exactly, because it does nothing for the plot, is ever explained). The King must be a pilgrim now.

ACT 3: A Roman Theatre, darkest night to dawn. (22 minutes)

0: Another entr’acte *. Roger and Edrisi know that if Roxana is to be saved (big if!) Roger must do it.

6, 12: Roger! Roger! Roger hears Roxana, and then the Shepherd as well *. Roxana has apparently escaped because the Shepherd has disappeared during the night. But he comes back! **. And then…Disney copyright lawyers come? The cult members dance, and disappear.

18: Słońca! The opera ends with Roger singing a hymn to the sun **. A strong finish, the baritone singing to the final bar.


This was an interesting entry (aren’t they all?). Personally, I prefer the first two acts, in particular the first act, but the opera’s best musical features are spread out relatively evenly. It is hard to find highlights, however, in this opera, since the score is so rather overwhelming and relentless. The brevity helps, since this is basically a mini-me Tristan und Isolde with cryptic homoeroticism, although this even is somewhat confusing since the Shepherd wins Roxana, not Roger, in the end. Is the gay-subtext a rouse that ultimately fails? Or are the overtures to Roger really just a way of distracting him so the Shepherd can take away his wife and kingdom? By act three this can start to become tiresome both musically and theatrically, although thankfully this is also the shortest of the acts. The narrative is almost non-existent in all three acts. It is really a situation, not a plot. Again, by the third act, literally nothing happens to change the situation from the end of the second act, so it is somewhat superfluous. And what is up with the Mickey Mouse heads? That is when you know things have gone on for too long my friends! For those who like it, it might be an alpha, for me, more of a beta. But an intriguing one that leaves far more questions than it answers.

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