PERHAPS THE remoteness of his birthplace 100 years ago at Tymoszo'wka in what was then the Ukraine and is now Poland contributed to composer Karol Szymanowski's lifelong fascination with the exotic and the spiritual, both in his travels and in his compositions. His visits to North Africa in particular led to a preoccupation with ancient Arab and early Christian cultures and to the development of a musical idiom that positively immerses itself in the juxtaposition of Western esthetic order with Eastern sensuous mysticism, a variation of the old opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. And it was a 1910 trip to Sicily that eventually led Szymanowski to produce 14 years later an opulent opera that celebrates this cultural dichotomy on a large scale--with powerful solo voices, an immense choir and an orchestra. It is called "King Roger" and will receive what is apparently only its second American performance tonight with a concert version by the Wolf Trap Company, at the Meadow Center.
King Roger was, in fact, a Norman who ruled over Sicily in the 12th century, at a time when the conflicting values of Greek, Arabic, Byzantine and Latin cultures coexisted in rare harmony. King Roger's insistence on keeping alive all these strains of the culture appealed to Szymanowski. Admittedly, the idea of writing a Polish opera--and one that is distinctly non-Slavic--about a Sicilian king in the 1100s may seem a little strange, but not when you know more about Szymanowski; bizarre as it may seem, it is quite in character.
"Szymanowski chose Roger because he was one of those rare rulers who tolerated cults," says Richard Woitach, who is head of the Wolf Trap Company and will conduct tonight. "In the '20s it was out of tune with the times, but if it had come along in the '60s and '70s it might have been picked up by the Me Generation and become a real hit. That's one of the reasons we are doing it now during the Szymanowski centenary."
Until recently, even the dedicated efforts of musical friends so eminent as his fellow Pole, Arthur Rubinstein, could create little interest in Szymanowski's music, but now that is beginning to change.
Several opera directors seem to think that "King Roger's" time has come. There was a much praised version at the English National Opera recently under Sir Charles Mackerras. Seattle had planned a staged production this past season until a Polish bass signed for the title role pulled out on political grounds. Then St. Louis did a concert version, beating out Wolf Trap for the American premiere.
Woitach argues that not that much will be lost by eliminating the visual element. A listen to an obscure Polish recording of "King Roger" indeed suggests that its impact lies more in the splendors of its music than in the mystical obscurities of its text, which will be sung in English tonight.
The opera opens on a majestic scale. It is during the mass in a huge Byzantine cathedral. The king and his court enter as the music develops to an immense climax. After that he is asked to protect the Church from a young shepherd boy who has appeared and challenged the Church with the advocacy of a different god. The boy (who will be sung tonight by Met tenor Richard Cassilly) is brought in and during a long ecstatic utterance describes his pantheistic god (it will turn out later that the boy has brought himself and his religion from the waters of the Ganges in India). The crowd demands that the boy be killed. But Roger's queen, Roxanna, comes to his defense. The King lets him go and arranges a meeting that night at his palace.
At that meeting the boy describes his god and the king becomes jealous as he realizes that his wife is attracted to the boy and his religion. She has a lovely high, evocative melody. The shepherd's followers begin an Arabic dance. The king orders the shepherd chained. The boy breaks those bonds and invites the people and the queen to follow him into the Kingdom of Light.
Act three opens with the king standing at night in the ruins of an ancient Greek temple as he laments his lost love. He calls for her and hears her voice in the distance. The queen tries to persuade him that the shepherd is surrounding him and is in everything and is everywhere. Suddenly the boy is transformed into the Greek god Dionysis and the members of his train into bacchants and maenads who go into a mad dance, which the queen joins. The king is left alone, but derives satisfaction from the fact that he has survived all this without being involved, and the opera ends as he sings a noble hymn of thanksgiving to the rising sun.
It's not exactly "La Traviata," one must admit, but in its strange way it can be powerful stuff.