King Roger opera returns to Warsaw 92 years after its premiere

The new production by Poland’s National Opera brings composer Karol Szymanowski’s “Sicilian drama” back to life for a new generation of operagoers to discover. Magda Hueckel, Krzysztof Bieliński

Over ninety years since its premiere, the Polish opera “King Roger” has returned to the stage in Warsaw.

The new production by Poland’s National Opera brings composer Karol Szymanowski’s “Sicilian drama” back to life for a new generation of operagoers to discover.

Born in 1882, Szymanowski was one of Poland’s greatest 20th Century composers. He started working on the opera in 1918, after his family’s estate in Tymoszówka, now deep in present-day Ukraine, was cut off from Europe by revolution.

The opera’s subject is 12th-Century King Roger II of Sicily, inspired by the composer’s trips to the island, where he visited the Royal Palace of Palermo, and interest in the Orient and Greek antiquity. 

The opera’s action, split over three acts, takes place during a single night. After a mysterious shepherd appears at his court, singing about a seductive song with the line “My god is as beautiful as I…”, King Roger must decide what to do with him.

The opera’s subject is 12th-Century King Roger II of Sicily, inspired by the composer’s trips to the island, where he visited the Royal Palace of Palermo, and interest in the Orient and Greek antiquity.Magda Hueckel, Krzysztof Bieliński

Inner conflict is at the heart of the opera, as the king faces a choice between Christian reason and hedonistic pleasure.

The libretto, in Polish, was written by poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Szymanowski’s cousin. Iwaszkiewicz captured the essence of their work on the opera in a poem:

“…We talked, warmed with the light and the reverie,

A King of far-away Sicily, the unknown Roger,

Mixing the gold of the East with the silver of the Evening,

Plays for us the Vespers bells of fragrant Palermo…”

The opera premiered in 1926 at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, with the composer’s sister Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska as King Roger’s wife, Roxana, who is charmed by the shepherd.

Inner conflict is at the heart of the opera, as the king faces a choice between Christian reason and hedonistic pleasure.Magda Hueckel, Krzysztof Bieliński

Since then, the opera has been staged more than twenty times in Poland and abroad, including in New York, London and Palermo, Sicily, where the action is set.

The new production in Warsaw, with its stark, minimal scenography, is directed by Mariusz Treliński, who first staged the opera in 2000. In his hands, the Sicilian ruler appears in all his human fragility as he faces an inner struggle between reason and instinct.

The premiere was held on 2 December, with bass-baritone Łukasz Goliński as Roger, Swedish soprano Elin Rombo as Roxana and tenor Arnold Rutkowski as the shepherd.

There will be several more performances in the first half of December.