Krol Roger, performed in Sydney   

Sicily is a land of magic, whose gorgeous natural scenery is embellished by countless artistic treasures. Their diversity bears witness to the complex political history of the island, which was ruled – among others – by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans… This mosaic of cultures, religions and beliefs dovetails with the varied landscapes of the island, with the majestic volcano of the Etna, the picturesque sea, the bushes, olive trees and vineyards of the interior.

This enchanting land fascinated deeply the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), whose opera Król Roger (King Roger) is being performed, until February 15th, at the Sydney Opera House. It is a rarely performed work, whose luxuriant instrumentation and richly-textured harmony manage to merge together the musical languages of several different traditions – just as Sicily represents, in itself, a unique blend of diverse cultures. Musical echoes from the liturgical traditions of Eastern Christianity, with their sober and yet enchanting style, go hand in hand with the colourful orchestral writing of the early twentieth century and the last, bright sunrays of the twilight of tonal writing.

Szymanowski’s compositional choices mirror not only the elusive and fascinating complexity of Sicily’s identity, but also the matter of the plot and of the libretto, which is set in the 1100s, at King Roger’s Sicilian court. There, several profoundly different cultures, each embodied by different characters, meet and struggle with each other: there are the Christian tradition of the religious people, the Islamic wisdom of the counsellor Edrīsi, and the pagan fascination of the Dionysian character of the Shepherd.

The Shepherd is brought to the King, and is charged with leading astray the Christian people, by teaching them to worship nature as a wild and powerful primeval force. The Queen is seduced by the Shepherd’s teachings, while the rational advice of Edrīsi is an example of moderation and prudence. It could be easy to see the opera as a perfect symbol for the clash of civilisations we are experiencing presently, at least according to some.

But things are not as simple and as straightforward as they may seem. The Shepherd presents himself as the “Good Shepherd”, which is an image particularly cherished in the Christian faith. The words he sings are among the most beautiful and poetic of the entire libretto, and constitute a praise and exaltation of nature’s splendour. In several instances, their language is reminiscent of the Biblical Song of Solomon. On the other hand, in Act III, it is apparent that a pantheistic cult of nature leads inexorably to the destruction of the individual, to their dissolution in an undifferentiated – and therefore impersonal and somewhat cruel – life force.

Indeed, many themes developed in Król Roger show deep influences from the theories of Nietzsche, such as his opposition of the Apollonian and of the Dionysian, and his denigration of Christianity as a mortifying and mortified religion, which deprives humans of the force of life.

In fact, a more nuanced reading is also possible, in my opinion. The Christian, Islamic and Pagan elements in Król Roger may be interpreted literally, but may also represent – broadly speaking – the spiritual, rational and physical component (respectively) of the human beings, i.e. their soul, mind and body. Such a perspective (similar to Nietzsche’s) fails, of course, to understand the seeming contradiction and the paradoxical balance of a truly Christian perspective. The pleading for forgiveness which resounds in the liturgical chants heard at the beginning points to the fallenness and sinfulness of human beings, but fails to rejoice in the beauty of life, of the created world, of love and of nature.

By thrusting this fundamental dimension into the hands of the Shepherd, the Christianity portrayed in Król Roger fails to express the faith’s crucial belief in the goodness of creation and in the beauty of love. Indeed, if and when Christianity loses this dimension, it is understandable that some, like the Queen, can be tempted to see it as a chain from which one hopes to be freed.

On the other hand, the purely ecstatic, frenzied and orgiastic cult of nature and of the body, represented by Dionysus, ultimately devours its worshippers, like the all-consuming fire of the final sacrifice. When the only force whose ruling is admitted is the force of physicality – and particularly when the transcendence of human beings is artificially reduced to their physical dimension – the forces of nature tend to destroy the spirituality of human beings, and, therefore, their very existence.

The paradox of Christianity, rightly understood, is that it addresses the body, the mind and the soul of human beings. It loves their body, their mind and their soul. It redeems them. Indeed, this paradox is hinted at also in Szymanowski’s opera, since both the Shepherd and the King address the Queen with words echoing the Bridegroom’s quest for his Bride in the Song of Solomon.

But the integration of soul, mind and body is one of the hardest to achieve, possibly at all times, but – I would say – particularly at Szymanowski’s time, and, though in a different sense, also today. This beautiful opera may be, therefore, a welcome encouragement to reflect on our culture, our philosophy and our theology of the created world, and on how it mirrors – in its entirety – the beauty and greatness of its Creator.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Visit her website. 

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at