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Bard SummerScape Continues its Trailblazing Productions of Rare Operas with Double Bill of Sumptuous Stage Works By Polish Composer Karol Szymanowski Opening July 25

Szymanowski's Opera King Roger and his "Pastoral Dance" Harnasie will be Performed by the American Symphony Orchestra, Conducted by Leon Botstein, in Productions Designed and Directed by Lech Majewski

Mark Primoff


ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – Bard SummerScape’s exploration of “Prokofiev and His World” will be enriched by productions of two rapturous works by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski – a contemporary and friend of Prokofiev’s – opening Friday, July 25 for a run of five performances through August 3. Under music director Leon Botstein, SummerScape’s resident American Symphony Orchestra will play both the acclaimed opera King Roger (The Shepherd) and Harnasie, a pastoral dance by the composer who is widely considered the father of modern Polish music. The Wroclaw Opera Chorus will perform, with Polish vocal soloists, and a children’s choir. Both works will be directed and designed by Lech Majewski.


Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) set philosophical issues to a glorious score in his 1924 opera King Roger (The Shepherd), a work of volcanic emotional and spiritual intensity, in a libretto he wrote in collaboration with Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. The title character, an enlightened twelfth-century Sicilian monarch, discovers that a mysterious shepherd, who preaches a gospel of erotic abandon, is challenging his authority. King Roger, seeing his queen and court seduced by the shepherd’s revolutionary credo, angrily confronts him, only to experience a rapturous revelation that fuses his rational and sensual selves. The 90-minute opera was given its premiere in Warsaw in 1926, to enormous critical acclaim. In a CD review in Gramophone magazine, King Roger is described as “a ravishingly beautiful opera,” with “orchestral textures [that] are voluptuously rich and subtly colored.”

Szymanowski’s 1931 pastoral dance Harnasie – another rarely-performed masterpiece – will precede each performance of King Roger. Like his countryman Frédéric Chopin, Szymanowski was frequently inspired by Polish folk music, in this large-scale work as elsewhere, and the establishment of an independent Poland after World War I no doubt heightened his sense of artistic patriotism. Harnasie tells the story of a reluctant peasant bride who falls in love with an outlaw named Harnas, the leader of a gang of mountain bandits. This remarkable hybrid work, which is based on a scenario by Jerzy Rytard and the composer himself, features a transcendent score that includes a tenor soloist and a massive choir. It is considered the crowning achievement in Szymanowski’s theatrical output, and has been favorably compared with Bartók’s Cantata Profana, among other works.

As Ruth Ochs observes, in notes to an essay that appears in Bard’s program for the double bill, Szymanowski’s two largest works for the stage were written at very different junctures in his career and seem to have little in common. King Roger capped a period when he was especially interested in ancient Greek and Arab literature and art, and explored “the Nietzschean tension between Dionysian and Apollonian impulses,” while Harnasie was the culmination of a long period, starting in the mid-1920s, when Szymanowski drew his greatest inspiration from Polish materials. “Whereas King Roger engages sober intellectual issues, Harnasie embraces the vitality of the everyday. The love story at its heart culminates during an elaborate highland wedding. In Harnasie, mime, song, and dance express the fortitude of the human spirit.”


Nonetheless, according to Ochs, the works share something essential: the inspiration of a specific physical location. “King Roger emerged from Szymanowski’s memories of his travels to Sicily in 1911, and plans for Harnasie were born during dance parties and other social events at the base of Poland’s highest peak in the mid-1920s. . . . The sounds associated with Sicily and the Tatra [mountains] became a central element of Szymanowski’s musical language.”


About the composer


Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 to an artistically inclined family of well-to-do Polish landowners in what is now Ukraine. As a child, he studied piano with his father, but only began serious compositional study in 1901, when he went to Vienna. His circumstances allowed him to travel often and freely to Berlin, Leipzig, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and even, later, the United States. Living in Vienna just before the Great War, he signed a ten-year contract with Universal Edition, which still publishes his scores today. His early compositions were influenced by such late Romantics as Wagner and Tchaikovsky; later on, Richard Strauss and Scriabin were his models. Polish folklore interested him throughout his life, especially in the works he wrote after World War I. As early as 1905 – under the patronage of Prince Wladyslaw Lubomirski – Szymanowski and a friend, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, formed a group of like-minded composers later known as “Young Poland in Music.”  In his long lifetime, Szymanowski composed numerous orchestral works, including four symphonies and two violin concertos, as well as choral works, songs, two outstanding string quartets, and other chamber music.



On his travels before World War I, Szymanowski came into contact with North African and Middle Eastern influences, besides hearing Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka on his way home, just before the outbreak of hostilities. Cut off from much of the world for the duration, but affected later by the Russian Revolution, he composed furiously in a variety of styles and forms. Like many younger composers, after the war he was disenchanted with late Romanticism but apparently rejected the Schoenbergian model; instead, according to the New Grove Dictionary, he sought “other foundations for a new aesthetic, and here the erotic Dionysiac element was to be of primary importance.”  New Grove continues:



The seeds of Szymanowski’s individual idiom, which had been present from the first, had by now developed into a style of great originality. Established forms are much less important, tonal harmony is relinquished in favor of polar centers, emphatic dynamics are exchanged for a more differentiated and generally softer treatment, and new means of articulation are used. These changes were all at the service of the new coloristic approach to sound.


The story of King Roger is based on the life of an enlightened twelfth-century Sicilian king (Roger II), and benefited from Szymanowski’s travels around that large island. The historical King Roger II is famed for having consolidated all the Norman conquests in the Italian peninsula into a single kingdom, and for surrounding himself with an ethnically diverse group of advisers. The opera “is based, broadly speaking, on the Dionysian thesis that only through bodily love can the mysteries of divine love be approached or creative work accomplished.” (New Grove)



From the early 1920s, Szymanowski spent much time at his home in Zakopane, finding a rich source of inspiration in music of the Tatra mountain folk for Harnasie and other works. Harnasie was given its premiere in Prague in 1935, and was an enormous critical and popular success at the Paris Opera the following year.


Szymanowski – who apparently made no particular secret of his homosexuality – has been embraced by the modern gay community, many seeing a “gay theme” or “hidden agenda” in King Roger and in the composer’s belief in the pre-Beatles inspiration that “all you need is love.”



Praise for Opera at Bard SummerScape


Since its opening season in 2002, when Janacek’s Osud was the first production in the brand-new Fisher Center designed by Frank Gehry, Bard SummerScape has been widely acclaimed for its innovative and adventurous presentations of important operas that are too seldom – if ever – presented in professionally-staged productions. In 2007, London’s Financial Times praised Bard’s Zemlinsky double bill: “Botstein, leading the American Symphony Orchestra in both operas, impressed especially in the way he brought out the exotic orchestral colors of Der Zwerg.”



The previous year, Bard presented the first staged production in the U.S. of Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva, to enthusiastic acclaim. The New York Observer wrote, “I was deeply moved by Genoveva…and I would jump at the chance to see it again.” Opera News added, “[Director] Holten and Botstein really assembled a festival performance in the best sense of the term.”  The Associated Press described Bard’s 2004 production of Shostakovich’s rarely-staged opera The Nose as “attractive, fast-paced, and engaging,” and the Wall Street Journal called it “top-flight.”  London’s Times Literary Supplement called Bard’s 2005 production of Blitzstein’s Regina “exemplary,” and the New Yorker called it “gripping.”






Karol Szymanowski: King Roger; Harnasie

Tadeusz Szlenkier, tenor (Harnasie solo and Shepherd in King Roger)


Adam Kruszewski, baritone (King Roger)

Iwona Hossa, soprano (Roxane in King Roger)

Wroclaw Opera Chorus

American Symphony Orchestra

Leon Botstein, conductor

Directed and designed by Lech Majewski

Sosnoff Theater

July 25, 31, and August 2+ at 8 pm


July 27* and August 3 at 3 pm

Tickets: $25, $55, $75

Thursday Performance: $20, $45, $65


+ Round-trip transportation by coach for the August 2 performance between Columbus Circle and the Fisher Center will be available. Reservations are required. Information: 845-758-7900.


* Opera Talk with Leon Botstein

Sosnoff Theater, July 27 at 1 pm


Free and open to the public




For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, phone the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit


Special support for this program is provided by Emily H. Fisher and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.

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This event was last updated on 08-04-2008