Aking, his queen, and a mysterious shepherd — that’s the simple set-up of “King Roger.” Premiered in Warsaw in 1926, this opera by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski is powerful, poetic, and enigmatic. At 85 minutes, however, it’s an awkward length for stage production, and for most of its lifetime it’s been relatively unknown. That’s changed in the past few years: There have been productions in Paris, Bilbao, Bregenz, Santa Fe, Barcelona, and Edinburgh, and a new one is set for London’s Covent Garden in May. Boston, meanwhile, is getting the next best thing, two concert performances, March 5 and 7, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Charles Dutoit, in what will certainly be one of the highlights of the orchestra’s season.
Szymanowski drew his inspiration from the trip he and his distant cousin, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, made to Italy, Sicily, and North Africa in 1914. “Szymanowski was educated in Poland but born in Ukraine to a very sophisticated Catholic family,” Dutoit explains. “But he was uneasy in his life. He was homosexual, and it was very difficult to have a normal life being homosexual at the time. So going to Italy with his cousin, he discovered this incredible new life, the sun, the Italian culture, and the Mediterranean culture, Greece, North Africa, Sicily, and so on. I think it became a revelation for him.”
The title character is a historical figure from the 12th century, King Roger II of Sicily, but the plot echoes Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” Iwaszkiewicz and Szymanowski collaborated on the libretto. Act one is set in a church whose architecture is a mixture of Norman, Greek, Arab, and Byzantine. Roger is told that a shepherd is leading the people astray. The shepherd appears in person and declares that his God is the shade of green woods, the whisper of distant seas, the thunder of distant storms. Enamored, Roger’s queen, Roxana, pleads for the stranger; Roger tells him to come to the palace that evening for judgment.
In act two, the shepherd arrives, and Roxana is moved to sing an ecstatic aria. Roger orders the shepherd bound, but he breaks free and leads Roxana and the people out of the palace. Act three is set is the ruins of an ancient Greek theater, where Roger is seeking Roxana. He hears her voice; then after the shepherd has taken the form of Dionysus, Roger sings a hymn of praise to the rising sun.
Dutoit is a longtime exponent of this opera; he’s conducted the premieres in New York, Paris, Canada, and Japan. He also points out that he was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1936 and that Szymanowski died in the same city just six months later. The music of “King Roger,” he says, “starts in a very tonal way with a glorious a cappella, more or less. And as the king comes in, the music is still very stable, and then it becomes more and more chromatic.” He adds that though the harmonies may be complex, “it’s not a problem to hear the music. The song of the shepherd, for example, is very seducing. It’s extremely beautiful and simple, because he has to convert the crowd.”
The BSO’s Roger and Roxana are also well versed in “King Roger,” since they sang it together at the Bastille in 2009. Polish-Ukrainian soprano Olga Pasichnyk points out that she and Szymanowski were both born in Ukraine, “only about 120 kilometers apart. The music he heard as a child, I think it was the same music I heard, and the landscapes he saw were the same landscapes I saw. That’s why I think he’s very close to my heart.”
Pasichnyk describes Roxana as “a powerful woman who loves her husband very much,” but then the shepherd elicits “something she never discovered in her herself and in her relationship with King Roger. And she decides to follow this flame in her heart, which is sometimes a little bit spiritual, sometimes a little bit religious, and sometimes just very sexual as well.”
Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, for his part, says that as a student he felt Szymanowski was too modern for him. But then he introduced himself to “King Roger” about eight years ago, “because everybody was saying this is a perfect role for me. So I listened to the music, and I started to find incredible emotions in it.”
Dutoit, Pasichnyk, and Kwiecien all agree that interpretation of “King Roger” is very difficult. “Traditional people in Poland try to interpret the Shepherd as Jesus Christ,” Kwiecien explains. “But I think there is in the opera a reflection of Szymanowski’s own life. He was in love with Iwaszkiewicz, but Iwaszkiewicz had a wife. So the relationship in his private life was very much like the relationship in ‘King Roger.’ ”
Dutoit supports that reading. “The music is so sensual at a certain point,” he observes, “that it suggests that the king was attracted physically by the shepherd. And that relates to Szymanowski’s own sexuality.”
The conclusion is even more ambiguous. Dutoit thinks that, at the end, Roger “goes through this dream, and the sun rises, and he doesn’t go with the Dionysian shepherd, he goes back to the Apollonian with the symbolic appearance of the sun at the end of the night. The whole thing takes place in one night.”
Pasichnyk believes that Roxana “disappears with the people following the Shepherd, like a sect, or some philosophy, she’s disappearing into some other world, some other dimension. Maybe she dies, we don’t know exactly.” For Kwiecien, “King Roger is transforming from somebody who couldn’t explain and understand who he is. At the end, he is a king who is dead, so that’s a huge transformation. Or if he survives, he is a new-born person.”
One thing Kwiecien is sure about is the nature of the Boston performances. Although Dutoit and the cast have not yet assembled to work out the details, he is adamant that the singers will not just stand around. “Otherwise it will just be like oratorio music —
“I believe in the power of this music, and I believe that this opera is still underestimated in the world,” Pasichnyk says. “But I notice that every time people discover this music, they fall completely in love with it. Also, the story is so exciting, I definitely believe that ‘King Roger’ will have a long life, not only on stages, but also in the concert halls.”Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.