On the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence, we begin this exceptional festival edition with a treasure of the Polish cultural heritage: the opera King Roger, with a star-studded cast.
Although this work is 100 years old, it was on everyone’s lips again in 2015, when it premiered on one of the most prestigious stages in the world – the Royal Opera House in London. The title role was performed by Mariusz Kwiecień, who will also sing at the Wratislavia Cantans festival. Kwiecień is one of the most renowned contemporary baritones, admired for the beauty of his voice, his vocal precision and his captivating acting technique. Kwiecień, who is also a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, sees this work by Karol Szymanowski as especially relevant at the present time of political, social and cultural uncertainties. In his role of Roger, Kwiecień has enraptured audiences across Europe. In his London production he recorded the album King Roger, which was nominated for a Grammy award in 2018. In Wrocław he will be accompanied on stage by Krystian Adam Krzeszowiak (as the scholar Edrisi), who is a singer admired on such stages as La Scala, Carnegie Hall and the Covent Garden Royal Opera House.
King Roger is one of the most important works in the history of opera, although it doesn’t involve love duets, duels, murders or other sure-fire theatrical elements, which many music lovers find a must. The drama and conflict are masterfully delineated in the personalities of the characters, which makes the work as powerful in the concert version as it is when staged. Incredible experiences at the inaugural festival concert will be also guaranteed by the conductor, Jacek Kaspszyk, who is a true admirer of Szymanowski’s art. The plot of the opera is set in Sicily – an island on which cultures intersect. It tells a fictitious story of the real 12th century King Roger II, who was a patron of the arts. Szymanowski began his work on the opera in 1918 in Ukraine, when war cut him off from the rest of Europe and the revolution left his family manor in Tymoszówka in ruins. The composer was surrounded by cinders and chaos, so he fled in his memories to the two journeys he had taken to Sicily, with images of the palace in Palermo, and the beauty of the old temples. He spoke about the radiance of the south of Europe with his cousin, a poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who wrote the remarkable libretto to King Roger. The work on this masterpiece took six years and the premiere took place in independent Poland.
The plot, which takes place over one night, is a story of a conflict between the mind and the instinct. A mysterious shepherd appears in the kingdom and a fight begins between him and Roger for the reign of the souls. Whose side will the subjects, courtiers and the king’s wife take? The most important choice is that of the king himself: will the level-headed, responsible Roger succumb to the desires and join the bacchanalia? Szymanowski took the idea of juxtaposing the intellectual distance to the world (Apollonian element) with the uninhibited sensuality (Dionysian element) from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a strong influence on the ideas shared by the composer’s generation. Today it is also thought that the inspiration for Szymanowski could be also his internal conflict caused by the problems with accepting his homosexual inclinations, which the composer allegedly finally realized in Sicily.
The story of the medieval monarch is sometimes understood as the attempt to liberate oneself from rigid norms and customs. At the same time, others see this work as a story of freeing oneself from the passions that chaotically drag on human beings. And perhaps the conflict between the spirit and the body is just an illusion and for the entire time the king is trying to free himself from the necessity to choose between the extremes? This opus magnum by Szymanowski is particularly valuable to the audience: not only because of the remarkable music, but also because the composer together with Iwaszkiewicz freed opera from its tight conventional norms. Both artists left us with the possibility to interpret the work on our own.