A mysterious Shepherd is brought before King Roger. The Church officials want him punished for his heretical preaching, but Roger's queen Roxana pleads with the king to let the Shepherd speak first.
Polish composer Karol Szymanowski began to gather ideas for Król Roger (King Roger), his second and final opera, in 1918. He was in part inspired by Euripides' The Bacchae, in which King Pentheus attempts to suppress the hedonistic worship of Bacchus but ultimately succumbs to his temptation and is destroyed in a bloody frenzy. Szymanowski's cousin, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, provided the original libretto; but in Szymanowski's arduous six-year gestation of the piece he altered the third act. His King Roger instead becomes a Nietzschean hero, who resists his desire and emerges 'strong enough for freedom'. But the focus of the opera is Roger's agonizing indecision – and the glorious music of the Act II Bacchic dance leaves a profound impression of the power of sensual temptation.
Szymanowski's music for the opera is opulently scored. The three short acts – commonly called the Byzantine, the Oriental and the Hellenic – brilliantly incorporate distinct musical styles. There are passages of exquisite lyricism, such as Roxana's soaring Act II aria, alongside thrilling writing for the chorus. Kasper Holten's new production (The Royal Opera's first) finds in Roger's indecision an expression of the struggle we all face – the struggle between intelligence and instinct in what is the innate duality of human nature.
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