King Roger (Król Roger in Polish) is an opera by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski set to a libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. It was first performed on 19 June 1926 in Warsaw, Poland. Among the original cast was the composer's sister, the soprano Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, as Roxana.
The opera originated from Szymanowski's enthusiam for Mediterranean culture as a melting pot of different peoples and religions, and particularly for its homoerotic freedom. He spent much time travelling in that area in 1911 and again in 1914 and shared his love of the region with his librettist (and cousin) Iwaszkiewicz. Szymanowski's lost novel Efebos dealt with the philosophical theme of pederasty, analogous to those that inspired this work. King Roger is seen by modern musicologists as an example of a "closet drama or parable" along the lines of many others, such as "Death in Venice." (Lesbian and Gay Music by Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood)
Musically, the influences of Scriabin, Richard Strauss and Ravel are apparent in the score. It is exquisitely colored by refined orchestration and evocative harmony, as well as seductive, often orientalist, melodies. While the music is considered to be of the highest quality, the opera itself is not often staged, primarily because its strengths are not so much dramatic as musical, but there have been several recordings that have made this work more accessible.
The story concerns the enlightenment of the twelfth-century Christian King Roger II of Sicily by a young shepherd who represents pagan ideals.
Act I (Often known as the "Byzantine" Act)
The Shepherd is introduced to King Roger and his court during mass at the Palermo cathedral. Despite calls for his punishment as a heretic by the Archbishop, Roxana, Roger's wife, convinces the King not to kill him. Roger orders the young man to appear at the palace that night, where he will explain himself and submit to the King's judgement.
Act II (The "Oriental" Act, representing India and the Middle East)
As instructed, the Shepherd appears at the palace gates. Roxana sings a seductive song which is clearly a response to the visitor, causing Roger to grow increasingly agitated. As the Shepherd is led in, he describes his faith in detail and soon almost the entire court joins him in an ecstatic dance. Roger attempts to chain him, but the Shepherd easily breaks free, and leaves the palace with almost all of those assembled following him. At first the King and his Arab advisor, Edrisi are left alone, but soon it is decided that Roger will join the Shepherd.
Act III (The "Greco-Roman" Act)
In an ancient Greek temple, King Roger and Edrisi rejoin Roxana, who informs her husband that only the Shepherd can free him of his fear and jealousy. A fire is lit, and the Shepherd's followers commence another dance, while the Shepherd is transformed into Dionysus. As the dance ends and the participants leave the stage, Roger is left transformed by the experience, and sings a joyous hymn at the arrival of the morning sun.