Regal king size
This article is from 2008.
Karol Szymanowski considered himself an outsider which is why he identified with Sicily’s King Roger II and why his opera has become a gay favourite, finds Carol Main
The Edinburgh International Festival’s staged opera programme is swinging from one extreme to the other. In the first week, Smetana’s The Two Widows, a relatively unknown quantity, proved delightfully light-hearted, easy on the eye and full of memorable tunes. The EIF is following that up with another unjustly neglected opera, but Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger) is rather different. It is intellectually demanding, musically rich and dramatically intense.
Both operas fit into this year’s EIF theme of artists without borders, but where Smetana was concerned with bolstering Czech identity in the 19th century, the production of Król Roger crosses some more up-to-date borders. The Edinburgh staging brings together the highly esteemed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera Company, of which he is general and artistic director, and the Polish production team, headed by film, theatre and opera director Mariusz Trelinski, who staged the original version of this production in Wroclaw eight years ago. Deeply philosophical and challenging and with a gorgeous, lush score, the 1926 opera is a great 20th century masterpiece of which more deserves to be known.
The story is based on the life of an actual Sicilian king, Roger II, who ruled between 1130 until 1154. ‘It can,’ says Trelinski, ‘be read in a thoroughly modern way, as a story of the king and the man who thought he was pulling all the strings and suddenly realised it was just an illusion. It is a story about a man who, in spite of having tremendous political power, failed in his life. Or did he?’
For Trelinski, the upside of King Roger’s downfall is that he found his true self by having power taken away from him. On a more basic level, he says, ‘It can be read as a story about a mid-life crisis.’
Szymanowski’s own life was not without crisis. Openly gay, he grew up with a feeling of being different. ‘He often described feelings of being an outcast and rejected by society,’ says Trelinski. ‘So there is a very strong theme of alienation in this opera.’
As everyone else in his court, including his wife, succumbs to the beautiful young shepherd and the hedonistic Dionysian life he offers, King Roger is alone in his attempts at resistance and adhering to the Christian faith. In 12th century Sicily cultures and religions often clashed. It was a real crossroads of powerful influences, whether European, Byzantine, Greek or Arabic. Ultimately, Roger’s faith recedes into disintegration and he embraces a transformation, closing the opera with a hymn in praise of the morning sun.
‘Another theme is the conflict between Dionysus and Christianity,’ says Trelinski. ‘I treat it metaphorically, as a conflict between the freedom of an individual internally driven by an urge to love and a dogma, by which I mean a system of standards accepted by society.’
The opera has been happily adopted by the gay community, especially in the US in the 90s when it became accepted as an iconic piece of gay culture. With overtones that can easily be interpreted as homosexual, it is understandable this should be so. ‘But, although it is clear from Szymanowski’s letters that he felt ostracised from the community,’ says Trelinski, ‘the opera is not explicitly about his homosexuality. That would be an oversimplification of his work. Rather, it is about a feeling of “not being from here”, both intellectually and aesthetically.’
The production to be seen in Edinburgh is not set anywhere near 12th century Sicily, but in the world of today. The first act takes place within a modern church, the second in a living room in a flat and the third in a hospital. In the first act, king and queen are dressed in black. By the last act, everyone wears white, symbolising Roger’s transformation. ‘What I want to do with this production,’ says Trelinski, ‘is to show a man in the prime of his life, but in a spiritual crisis and internally burnt out. He is a man of today, of here and now.’
Król Roger, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 473 2000, 25 and 27 Aug, 7.15pm, from £10.