King Roger

Karol Szymanowski

Opera in three acts
Libretto: Karol Szymanowski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
World premiere: 19 June 1926, Warsaw
Premiere of this production: 2 December 2018, Polish National Opera, Teatr Wielki, Warsaw
Co-produced with: Royal Swedish Opera; National Theatre, Prague
In the original Polish with English surtitles
Please note the production uses strobes.
For adults only.

Mariusz Treliński has staged King Roger three times already. The first production opened in 2000 at the Polish National Opera Budner Jacek Kaspszyk with Wojciech Drabowicz in the title role. The work was drawing on ancient rituals, symbols, and archetypes, creating a mystical story about a clash of two religions: Christianity and cult of Dionysus, one new one old.  

Seven years later Mr Treliński directed Roger for the Wrocław Opera together with Ewa Michnik. The main part was entrusted to Andrzej Dobber. This time round, Treliński approached the piece from a modern perspective, focusing on the process of self-inspection and mental crisis that allow Roger to discover truth about himself, grow as a person, and renounce life based on the cult of power and violence. The shepherd was an outsider, a rebel, and a seductive messenger heralding the possibility of escaping the trap of one’s bad life.

Eighteen years later the director revisited the Szymanowski piece for the Polish National Opera, Royal Swedish Opera, and National Theatre in Prague. He believes King Roger to be complex and difficult and at the same time the most beautiful Polish pieces of music. Each new staging, he claims, is a new journey and the Szymanowski work is one of the milestone in contemporary understanding of opera.

King Roger is indeed a work of broad intellectual and artistic horizons, a result of Karol Szymanowski’s colourful journeys to the south of Europe and his interest in antique and Arab culture which he read about extensively. The opera brings together the exoticism of the Orient and Dionysian myth, which were so absorbing to the composer also in the context of Nietzsche’s works.

In 1911 Szymanowski went to Sicily together with Stefan Spiess, his well-to-do friend, industrialist, and art lover. They returned to the island three years later, this time also visiting Algiers, Biskra and Tunis. In 1917 35-year-old Karol and his adored cousin, poet and writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz came up with the idea to write a ‘Sicilian tragedy’. Szymanowski was attracted to opera, although his first attempt, the one-act Hagith, a Biblical-erotic work written in 1914, was not very successful: the composer did not avoid making beginner mistakes typical for this difficult genre. He did not get discouraged though: ‘Music for the stage is indeed a magical medium,’ he believed.

The first drafts for King Roger at the turn of 1917 and 1918 in Elysavet (present-day Ukraine), a city where Iwaszkiewicz stayed and where the Szymanowski family had moved from Tymoshivka. Seeing the world they knew collapse before their eyes, the two artists sought refuge in magic fiction conjured up by their imagination. Iwaszkiewicz completed the libretto in 1920, following which Szymanowski introduced considerable additions, putting in garlands of worlds. The work was not progressing as he would have wanted: the composer’s mind was somewhere else, in the mountains, pondering Podhale folklore which enchanted him during his first visit to Zakopane in 1921. It was as if the move to Poland where he settled after the Great War having been forced to leave his native Ukrainian steppes and his travels to the South have woken him up from the Oriental dream of his youth.

He finished the ‘goddamn opera’, as he then called it, in the summer of 1924. The most time-consuming part was the instrumentation of the not very long piece. It opened at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw on 19 June 1926 under Emil Młynarski. The production was directed by Adolf Popławski and designed by Wincenty Drabik. The premiere cast’s Roger was Eugeniusz Mossakowski, Shepherd Adam Dobosz, while the composer’s sister, Stanisława Szymanowska portrayed the queen consort, Roksana.

King Roger concluded a period in Karol Szymanowski’s art that was inspired by ancient history and the Orient and that produced such beautifully sensual works as The Love Songs of Hafiz, Myths for violin and piano, Symphony No. 3 ‘Songs of the Night’, a musical setting of poetry by Persian artist Rumi, or Violin Concerto No. 1. When King Roger was played in Warsaw, the opera’s author had already written Stabat Mater inspired by folk Catholicism and was giving serious thought to Harnasie. Still, years later, he came to the conclusion that King Roger had been the best piece of music he had penned.  

In 1949 the opera was staged at Sicily’s Teatro Massimo that overlooks Palermo. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who was in attendance, wrote that the production directed by Bronisław Horowicz, a student of Leon Schiller, was ‘close to perfection’. Iwaszkiewicz’s daughter who watched the show alongside her father noted that real-life Sicily was nowhere close to the mythical one deemed up in Szymanowski’s opera. This is no coincidence: ‘King Roger’s Sicily is a region in the composer’s soul,’ stated Iwaszkiewicz in his book Spotkania z Szymanowskim (Meetings with Szymanowski).

King Roger enjoyed a major international revival in 1998 after Sir Simon Rattle, then the head of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted it at the BBC Proms and recorded it in full for EMI. Since then the ‘goddamn opera’ has been shown in Paris, London, Madrid and Bilbao, Santa Fe, Frankfurt and Bregenz, Sydney, and Melbourne. Szymanowski would have been pleased.



Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera

Dancers, actors, and children of the Artos Children’s Choir


  • ,

    Part One

    Roger’s cry breaks the silence and stillness. Is the nightmare over, or is it only just beginning? Choral singing praising God and the ruler can be heard. Roger listens to it alone. He tries to recover, but evil spectres still haunt him. He sees himself dead, being prepared for his solemn funeral. The council is under way. It turns out that Roger’s well-organized state is at risk. There appeared a mysterious Shepherd, who proclaims a new faith, gaining followers. State dignitaries, including representatives of the Church, demand that Roger imprison and punish the Shepherd. They call for the death penalty. Roxana, Roger’s wife, nonchalantly persuades him to meet the newcomer and give him a fair trial. Roger orders that the Shepherd be brought to him. The Shepherd suddenly appears in the middle of the council meeting, unnoticed by anyone. He appears as if from nowhere and suspends reality for a moment. Only Roger can see him. He asks questions. The Shepherd speaks of the God who has sent him: ‘My God is beautiful as I am’. This God is a free god of love and liberation. The Shepherd takes control of the situation. Wonders begin to happen. Little tricks and big matters, capriciously impermanent, like healing the paralysed Deaconess. Roger loses control over the situation. Roger’s men are going mad. Even Roxana crosses over to the newcomer’s side. Provoked, Roger begins to impulsively assault the Shepherd. Everyone is immersed in an orgy of aggression. Terrified, Roger stops this dangerous situation. He cries, ‘Enough!’, and brings the world back to normal. The Shepherd disappears, at least for the time being. When Roger is left alone, the Shepherd appears again, this time in the mirror, announcing his arrival. The password for the guards is ‘Shepherd’. The Shepherd is to answer ‘Roger’. Identities become exchanged. Roger and the Shepherd have become one in the mirror reflection. A night of uneasiness has fallen. Roger dozes off and stirs up, waiting for the Shepherd. Edrisi is with him, they talk about Roxana. He asks Roger how long it had been ‘since he sought Roxana’s lips in rapture?’. Instead of the answer appears Roxana, in ecstasy. She asks for mercy for the Shepherd. Roger is terrified, Edrisi seems to understand her. Each of them experiences the reality differently. For Roxana, it is a night of peace and harmony, for Roger – that of extreme tension. In the distance, the password ‘Shepherd’ can be heard. The inevitable is approaching. The Shepherd appears in the mirror and greets Roger in ‘the name of great love’. His presence is multiplied. Interrogated by Roger, he gives increasingly bold answers, he says he has been sent by God. The world becomes suspicious all around. People from Roger’s surroundings fall into ecstasy. Roxana keeps pleading for mercy for the Shepherd. A strange triangle is created in which Roxana gradually approaches the Shepherd. Roger loses his space, his wife, his people. In a hallucinatory vision, the Shepherd appears in the ritual outfit of the Goat, and is joined by Roxana, now adorned by horns. The mystery announced by the Shepherd begins. Roger is to be sacrificed. He finds himself on a table that turns into an altar. His body is quartered. He becomes a blood- bath for Roxana and his associates. Roger, who is both a participant and an observer of this scene, interrupts it, ordering that the Shepherd be captured. But one cannot capture someone whose existence is doubtful. Exhausted, Roger falls to the ground. He loses his strength, he weakens. The Shepherd calmly looks at his agony. He invites the dying man to himself, ‘to his sunlit shore’. Once the Shepherd has left, Edrisi appears. He hears Roger’s last words: ‘The King has become a pilgrim!’. 

  • ,

    Part Two

    The next stage of Roger’s spiritual journey takes place after his death. In a terrifyingly white space, Roger remains in lethargy. ‘Around me lifeless stones, the gray-blue infinity of the seas.’ In empty mirror frames there appear characters from Roger’s life. They are deformed, threatening, grotesque: the Deaconess and Archbishop, the murderous Goat, blood-soaked Roxana. Figures from the past try to arrange a code of the future. Roger – washed out of any feelings, autistic, empty – walks around in a maze of reflections. A calling can be heard: ‘Call, call, awaken!’. Roger loudly calls out Roxana’s name, but only the Shepherd’s voice answers him. Finally, Roxana appears, summoned by Roger. She is with child. She returns, assuring her husband of her love. Roger is anxious about the Shepherd; he suspects Roxana has had a relationship with him. The game of distrust and attraction revolves around Roxana’s pregnancy. Has Roger been reborn in her womb? Does he have a chance of rebirth through death? They fall into each other’s arms. The final mystery of sacrifice and rebirth begins. Led by the Shepherd’s voice, Roger heads towards illumination and transformation. ‘From the abyss of my might, I will tear out my clear heart, and offer it to the Sun!’. Roger meets himself. The full moon has become flesh.

  • Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland as part of the NIEPODLEGŁA programme for 2017–2022.

  • Produced in association with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme and the Polska 100 programme, an international cultural programme marking the centenary of the recovery of Polish independence.


  • Patron of Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera

  • Partners of Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera

  • Logo Perlage
  • Logo Sisley
  • Co-produced with:

  • Technological partner

  • Media patrons