Opera Scotland

King Roger Król Roger

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Karol Szymanowski (born Tymoszówka, Ukraine, 6 October 1882 1863; died Lausanne, 29 March 1937)

Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz and the composer.

Novel Ephebos by the composer, influenced by The Bacchae of Euripides.

First performance: Warsaw (Wielki Theatre), 19 June 1926.
First UK performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 14 May 1975.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Festival Theatre), 25 August 2008.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Szymanowski came from a comfortable background which allowed him to study extensively in Warsaw and Vienna. He was also able to travel, and explored North Africa and Sicily, which had a great influence on his composition. Medieval Sicily, in particular, affected him strongly. Roger II was the leading member of the Hauteville dynasty of Norman rulers who controlled Sicily contemporaneously with the Norman conquest of England. His reign saw an extremely enlightened period of rule during which there was tolerance of several religions and cultures from the Mediterranean zone and a flowering of cultural and academic life in Sicily. Although that cultural cross-fertilisation is represented by the character of Edrisi, the opera otherwise has little basis in historical fact, and sets up a rivalry between Roger’s Christian culture and the paganism of the shepherd. There is a clear similarity to the situation in The Bacchae, where the shepherd is Dionysus, and Pentheus follows his mother Agave and the women of the court to the hills, where they dance in a frenzy and tear him to pieces. Roger’s fate is somewhat less violent than that suffered by Pentheus.

Roger II, King of Sicily (baritone)
Roxana, his Queen (soprano)
Edrisi, his Arabian counsellor (tenor)
The Shepherd (tenor)
Archbishop of Palermo (bass)
The Deaconess (contralto)

Plot Summary
The setting is 12th Century Sicily, under Norman rule. A shepherd has been preaching a philosophy of pleasure which is opposed by the Church authorities. In the opening scene they ask Roger to have the man arrested. Roxana is interested in the shepherd’s views and persuades Roger to investigate them first. The shepherd brings his acolytes to the castle and they dance until they have won over many of the courtiers, including Roxana, who leaves with the shepherd and his followers. Roger follows them to a nearby amphitheatre where he watches them continue their dancing. The shepherd is revealed to be Dionysus, but Roger resists the temptation to join his followers, and instead sings a hymn to the rising sun.


EMI (2 CDs) Sung in Polish Recorded 1998

Conductor: Simon Rattle
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Elzbieta Szmytka (Roxana), Thomas Hampson (Roger), Ryszard Minkiewicz (Shepherd).

One of the most notable features of the later years of Simon Rattle’s tenure at the CBSO was his persistence with the performance of works by Szymanowski, which had, until then, been given fairly limited exposure in the UK. The first UK performance of King Roger was by the New Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells, conducted by Charles Mackerras. That excellent production was taken over by ENO the following year, but never revived, and no other British company has staged the piece since. The 2008 Edinburgh Festival saw a staging by the Mariinsky under Gergiev, and anyone who saw that will be pleased to hear again the lovely Roxana of that cast, Elzbieta Szmytka. Thomas Hampson seems to negotiate his way through the Polish text with expertise, as does Philip Langridge, in the small but important role of Edrisi. The excellent Polish mezzo, Jadwiga Rappé, sings the small part of the Deaconess in the first scene. Diehard Scottish Opera followers may remember her old Countess as one of the few positive elements in a production of The Queen of Spades a few years ago. The filler on the second disc is a superb performance of the Sinfonia Concertante, a piano concerto in effect, with the glorious Leif Ove Andsnes as soloist. All Rattle’s Szymanowski discs have also been re-issued in a package that is excellent value.

NAXOS (2CDs) Sung in Polish Recorded 1990

Conductor: Karol Stryja Polish State Philharmonic, Katowice Barbara Zagórzanka (Roxana), Andrzej Hiolski (Roger), Wieslaw Ochman (Shepherd)

An idiomatic Polish performance at bargain price with an excellent cast is almost self-recommending. Wieslaw Ochman is perhaps a heavier tenor than usually sings the Shepherd – he sang many times at Glyndebourne in the 1970s in the heavier Tchaikovsky and Strauss repertoire, but the voice still sounds beautiful. Hiolski was an excellent baritone with long experience in the title role. This set contains another Szymanowski rarity as a valuable filler, in some incidental music to a play, Prince Potemkin, composed in 1925.

KOCH-SCHWANN (2 CDs) Sung in Polish Recorded 1988

Conductor: Robert Satanowski
Orchestra of Wielki Theatre, Warsaw
Barbara Zagórzanka (Roxana), Florian Skulski (Roger), Stanislaw Kowalski (Shepherd).

This recording could hardly be more authentic, given that it originates from the Warsaw opera house where King Roger was first performed. The cast is entirely Polish and the result is completely convincing. It now seems rather short measure, when the other recordings provide substantial extra pieces to complete the discs – King Roger is not a long opera.

The Cast

 Roger's Arabian counsellor
First Voice
 King Roger II of Sicily
 Roger's Queen
Second Voice

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