I’m reading various analyses and reviews of Król Roger, and I came across these bits from Göran Forsling’s Opera Or Not, It Is Drama – Szymanowski’s King Roger in Stockholm:
An early reviewer of this opera, Henryk Opieński, wrote: ‘The libretto of King Roger is a dramatic poem in which there is no romance, no love duet, no killing, no duel, in a word, none of those factors which are allegedly essential for an operatic ‘plot’. The content, distributed over three acts, is the victory of the Dionysian idea of life over a king who is imprisoned by the chains of Byzantine religious rigour, his wife, his entourage and, lastly, the whole of his people’. Moreover, the general impression of the work is more that of an oratorio, or maybe a mystery play, than a genuine opera. Musically it is also a patchwork of Greek-Orthodox church music (the choruses in the opening scene), Oriental influences (Roxana’s aria) and Szymanowski’s late modernism, where he has left behind his original models: Chopin, later supplanted by Wagner, Reger and Richard Strauss, after 1914 impulses from his travels to Italy and North Africa, even later French impressionism, Stravinsky and Polish folklore. Altogether he created his very own tonal world as a conglomerate of all this – and his own ideas. It is indeed easy to agree with Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, one of today’s foremost exponents of the title role, who said in an interview before the premiere of King Roger at Covent Garden: ‘to have composed this music one must have done drugs or at least been a little mad.’
And Caroline Crampton’s Król Roger’s music is beautiful – but overwhelmed by constant symbolism:
As soon as the lights come up on the enormous sculpture of a face, you know what you are supposed to think about the Royal Opera House’s take on Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger. This early-20th-century piece by the often-neglected Polish composer is all about inner conflict, and the mesmerising light show that plays across the gigantic features during the overture gives you a visual representation of the competing demands of ego and super-ego.
It’s a subtle and impressive display: the features appear to shift and flicker, a glorious accompaniment to the music. Even before the monarch begins to sing, we have been drawn into his struggle between sensual temptation and religious conformity. What with the glittering harmonic brilliance of Szymanowski’s music underscoring this imposing vision, it is several moments before you notice the man kneeling before the great face. He is dwarfed by it – when he stands, his head barely reaches above its lips – and yet this is Król Roger, ruler of a kingdom and the human embodiment of power.
Who is he, this king who bows before the implacable, unknown face?
I can dig it.
Anyway, here’s a pretty decent production if you want to experience the opera for yourself:
Nothing beats seeing it live though.