Karol Szymanowski is one of the most important Polish composers – arguably the most notable after Chopin – his music influenced by Debussy, Scriabin and Richard Strauss. His opera King Roger premiered in 1926 and is now being presented for the first time in Sweden by the Royal Swedish Opera.

<i>King Roger</i> by the Royal Swedish Opera © Sören Vilks
King Roger by the Royal Swedish Opera
© Sören Vilks

King Roger was inspired by Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, interpreted through the lens of early 20th-century psychoanalysis. Roger is a Christian king in Sicily in the 12th century who receives a young, charismatic shepherd at his court. He turns out to be none other than Dionysus, god of wine, fertility and ritual madness. The shepherd speaks in mysterious, cryptic ways, denying Christ and calling for the worship of another god. The people call for his execution, but Queen Roxana is granted her request that the King hear him before rendering judgement. The shepherd charms all the people and the Queen herself, convincing them to follow him. King Roger is unable to stop the events, and, in the end, becomes himself a follower of the shepherd’s religion: the worship of sensuality and beauty. In the end, the Shepherd reveals his divine nature and disappears, while King Roger regains his Apollyonic rationality: he offers his heart to the Sun. He emerges a stronger person, uplifted, but not completely devastated by the Dionysian experience. Man needs both sides – reason and sensuality – to become fully human.

<i>King Roger</i> by the Royal Swedish Opera © Sören Vilks
King Roger by the Royal Swedish Opera
© Sören Vilks

In this co-production with Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, Mariusz Treliński modified the story, which now takes place almost entirely in King Roger’s head. The shepherd is part of the King himself, who seems to suffer from a schizophrenic delusion and takes his own life at the end of Act 2. Act 3 takes place in a sort of after-world where the King enters eternity with a new wisdom and calm.

The concept is not completely convincing from a dramatic point of view. Many facets of the original story are lost: there is no trace of the clash between Christian and Pagan religion, and the drama loses the choral dimension completely. The chorus is almost never visible on stage, which deprives the performance of a key element.

The production also interfered with the musical experience: the chorus and many of the characters were often singing off stage, with an excessive use of amplification. Videos and other visual effects were used throughout the performance, with a silvery snake appearing at the beginning of each act to represent sin and temptation. The scenes by Boris Kudlička were modern, stylized and mostly black in the first two acts, while the third act was in glaring white. The dancing scenes were particularly effective visually – true bacchanalia – full of sensual dancing and ecstatic frenzy.

<i>King Roger</i> by the Royal Swedish Opera © Sören Vilks
King Roger by the Royal Swedish Opera
© Sören Vilks

In this conceptual production, the character of Queen Roxana was reduced to an idea in her husband’s mind, which was a pity, because Elin Rombo did a great job in the role. Her silvery soprano was well suited to the role, and her interpretation managed to convey both the sensual follower of Dionysus and the loving, faithful wife.

Two Polish singers, Łukasz Goliński and Arnold Rutkowski, were King Roger and the Shepherd, respectively. Both were very convincing in their roles, Goliński’s baritone smooth and round, Rutkowski’s tenor high and exciting. They had great chemistry on stage, their interaction in their native tongue natural and engaging.

The Royal Swedish Orchestra produced a beautiful, full sound, and conductor Andrea Molino drove the action with energy and commitment. The Stockholm audience responded with great warmth, paying tribute to the performers with enthusiastic cheering.

***11