Here is the trailer for the Royal Opera’s 2015 production of Król Roger by Polish-Ukrainian composer Karol Szymanowski and his cousin librettist Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, which looks pretty fucking cool.
Król Roger tells the story of that time Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily and Africa, encountered Dionysos in the form of a humble shepherd and had his life turned upside down in the process. Or as karolszymanowski.pl puts it:
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-Dionysus. 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 Dionysus 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 genesis of the play lies in Szymanowski’s own transformative encounters during his travels through Southern Italy and the Middle East in the years leading up to WWI (though the score would not see completion until 1924.) That story, and the Dionysian themes which run through Król Roger are brilliantly discussed in Willem Bruls’ “A Synthesis of the Sensual and the Divine”: Karol Szymanowski and his King Roger:
The culture that had influenced the composer most strongly when he was in Sicily was that of the Byzantine world of the French-Norman King Roger II, son of the Norman count Roger de Hauteville, who had attacked Sicily in 1060 and seized it from the Arabs. His government took on many of the dominant Greek, Roman, and particularly Arabic traditions, and it guided the island to one of its cultural high points. His son Roger II, who lived from 1095 to 1154, continued these traditions. His court in Palermo was the splendid center of his empire. The three populations of the island – Greeks, Arabs, and Latin Sicilians – lived in comparative harmony. Roger’s grandson, Frederick II, would later try unsuccessfully to export this idea of a cultural melting pot to northern Europe.
In Palermo, Szymanowski visited the famous Palatine Chapel that Roger had built in gratitude for his coronation. This church is one of the marvels of Byzantine-Arabic architecture. Colorful mosaic biblical scenes against golden backgrounds cover the walls and cupolas, while the wooden ceiling is decorated with Arabic carvings. The building made a lasting impression on the 29-year-old Szymanowski, and this experience would form the core of his personal and artistic development from then on. What is striking here is less that a composer would be stimulated by architecture and the fine arts, than that these arts are in their essence the very expression of the world from which he had hoped to liberate himself, namely, the Christian world. What Szymanowski saw in Palermo reflected the proverbial rigidity of Byzantine art, of Oriental rites, and the dogma of absolute truth. The mosaics were created largely by Greek artists during the epoch of the second golden age of Byzantine art.
The ceiling of the chapel, produced by Arabic craftsmen, adds to the splendor of the building. The sweeping forms of the Moorish stalactites and carved coffers, recalling the ascendancy of Granada and Cordoba, form a counterweight to the strict Byzantine figures. The blending of Christian and Arabic cultures points to the older culture from which both developed, that of classical antiquity.
After his stay in Sicily in 1914, Szymanowski crossed the Mediterranean on his way to North Africa. Together with his friend Stefan Spiess, he visited Algiers, Constantine, Biskra, and Tunis. On April 11, he wrote from Biskra: “This place is truly divine…” The warmth and beauty that Szymanowski sought in the south meant something else to him, however. One of the reasons that he fled the north so regularly was his homosexuality. In Sicily and in North Africa he probably felt something of the relative freedom toward this form of eroticism.