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Karol Szymanowski: King Roger (The Shepherd)

  • Opera in 3 acts (1918-1924)
  • 3 3 4 3 - 4 3 3 1 - perc(6), hp(2), cel, pno, org, str
  • Duration: 120’
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st flute
    2nd flute
    3rd flute (+picc)
    1st oboe
    2nd oboe
    cor anglais (+3rd ob)
    1st clarinet in Bb (+cl(A))
    2nd clarinet in Bb
    3rd clarinet in Bb (+cl(A)
    bass clarinet in Bb
    1st bassoon
    2nd bassoon
    contrabassoon (+3rd bsn)
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    3rd horn in F
    4th horn in F
    1st trumpet in Bb (+tpt(C))
    2nd trumpet in Bb (+tpt(C))
    3rd trumpet in Bb (+tpt(C))
    1st trombone
    2nd trombone
    3rd trombone
    percussion(6): xylophone, glockenspiel, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, long drum, bass drum
    1st harp
    2nd harp
    violin I
    violin II
    stage music: 1st trumpet in C
    2nd trumpet in C
    3rd trumpet in C
    4th trumpet in C (ad lib)
  • Choir: SATB Knabenchor: Diskant (Sopran)/Alt
  • Composer: Karol Szymanowski
  • Librettist: Jaroslaw IwaszkiewiczKarol Szymanowski
  • Translator: Rudolf Stephan HoffmannGeoffrey DunnJosef Frantisek MunclingerPiotr Kaminski
  • Dedication: à Dorothy Jordan Robinson

Work introduction

The European music of the turn of the century is marked by the rush sound. In the succession of Richard Wagner, the orchestra pedal becomes the medium of excessive sound staging. The word "sound" itself takes on a magical meaning.

The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, who was born in 1882, the year Wagner died, must also be counted among the sound erotomens. If we ignore the Polish creative period of Szymanowski, many of his works are absolute sound maniatures. His opera King Roger is no exception.

On his travels to Italy and North Africa between 1908 and 1914, Szymanowski succumbed to the fascination of these countries and collected a great deal of material, which was reflected in King Roger. According to its genre, opera stands in the mysterious "no man's land" between opera, oratorio and mystery play. In the three acts of the opera, Szymanowski captured three different cultures - partly based on authentic musical material: Byzantism, the Arab-Indian Orient, and Greco-Roman antiquity.

The plot itself is rooted in Euripides' "Bacchantes" and depicts in three oratorio-like tableaux: the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus, between the intellect and the unconscious, and between the Christian church in medieval Sicily and the pagan faith.

The libretto that Szymanowski wrote together with Jaros?aw Iwaszkiewicz can only be traced back to historical facts regarding the persons of King Roger II, who ruled over Sicily from 1130 to 1154, and his advisor. Although the plot refers to typical counter-events of the time, it is fictitious as such.

What is decisive for this opera is that Szymanowski proves to be an absolute master of ecstasy, mysticism and misterioso.


Sample pages

World première

Wielki Theater, Warszawa (PL)
Emil Mlynarski

Press reviews

But now, after this rapturously acclaimed performance, Król Roger’s power and stature are decisively vindicated, lifting it alongside Bluebeard’s Castle and the later works of Janacek as a masterpiece of the early twentieth-century European sensibility. (Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 2 May 2015)

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Szymanowski’s 1926 opera Król Roger isn’t a lovely occasional oddity, a rarity whose appeal is largely novelty, or a dust-it-off-once-a-decade sort of piece. It’s that rarest of things, a real and original masterpiece whose worth has been unaccountably undervalued. (Alexandra Coghlan, The Arts Desk, 2 May 2015)

It's a production that honours the score to a level that lifts the spirits. […] And what a score it is – and how searingly Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera forces deliver it. In one of the great opening nights at Covent Garden everyone gave a red-hot performance … (Mark Valencia, WhatsOnStage, 2 Mai 2015)

What a joy it is to see staged here a work, which, like Janá?ek’s bizarrely ignored operas, is no longer than it need be, and so handsomely repays attention in every minute of its mere ninety. (Mark Berry, Boulezian, 2 May 2015)

It’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of Szymanowski’s orchestral writing, to wallow in its iridescent colours and rich harmonic palette, and forgive the work’s dramatic thinness and the lack of substance in all of the characters but Roger. […] What the performance confirms, however, is the beauty of much of the music. (Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 3 May 2015)

So this Covent Garden staging, which runs until May 19, was a must-see. […] But what the staging lacked, the score delivered in the hands of a conductor who brought the sensuousness of this music into being. The orchestral sound was ravishing, the chorus strong but supple. (Michael White, The New York Times, 4 May 2015)

Król Roger is in this sense an ideal opera because, as in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, its dramatic content is quite literally heard through the music. And what tremendous music it is, subtly and exotically scored with moments of bewitching beauty and earth-shattering power. (Guy Dammann, The Spectator, 9 May 2015)

The 90-minute work opens at twilight and ends at sunrise, providing a blazing climax with an aria, sung by Roger himself, to the sun. Simon Rattle, Mark Elder and others have championed it as a masterpiece. (Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian, 10 May 2015)


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