There's a ghost in this house

A Polish country-house opera haunted by the spectre of oppression comes to London
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The Independent Culture

Sadler's Wells may be in managerial meltdown, with the departure of both the chief executive and the chairwoman, but look on the positive side: the Polish National Opera, under the conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, is bringing a piece of its nation's cultural history to the venue.

Sadler's Wells may be in managerial meltdown, with the departure of both the chief executive and the chairwoman, but look on the positive side: the Polish National Opera, under the conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, is bringing a piece of its nation's cultural history to the venue.

The Haunted Manor, composed in 1864-5 by the founding father of Polish opera, Stanis-law Moniuszko, is steeped in Poland's tradition of resistance to the oppressor. So grimly did the occupying Russian authorities (who, with Prussia and Austria, had divided up Poland) view its subversive message that they closed the opera after three performances. It's hardly surprising, given the explosive content: as with the other operas being staged - Krzystof Penderecki's Ubu Rex and Karol Szymanowski's King Roger - The Haunted Manor is partly about dictatorship.

The haunted demesne stands for Poland itself, and the Russians are the implied bad guys. Comedy it may be, but this politically charged opera is laced with popular tunes - the mazurka, polonaise and krakowiak (after the old capital, Cracow) - that are Polish to the core. The hero ("the sword-bearer") is the ultimate mustachioed Polish military gent; his two fabulous daughters are Poland's future. And their soldier boyfriends - well, they're the chaps who will boot the Russkies out.

"Slusz" - "Listen" - is the watchword of Szymanowski's King Roger. Anyone who has seen the fabulous mosaics in Roger II's palace at Palermo, or dipped into Sir Steven Runciman's book The Sicilian Vespers, will know this 12th-century ruler of Sicily-Puglia-Calabria as the key figure bridging the Byzantine East-Norman West divide. As in Euripides' Bacchae, a beleaguered young monarch finds both his state's and his own moral backbone weakened by a politically subversive, seductive young shepherd for whom - despite his beautiful, enraptured wife - he feels twinges of homosexual longing (as the composer himself often did). The opera is about Roger's coming to terms with despotism and liberalism in himself, and squaring up to life's Dionysian undercurrents. It is powerful 1920s stuff, with an Orthodox-imbued cathedral scene and as beguiling an impressionist score as you'll meet anywhere.

And, last, there's Ubu Rex, based on Alfred Jarry's grotesque teenage satire. Its composer, Penderecki, is well known for Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, The Devils of Loudun and for not pulling his punches. Here, like Moniuszko, he uses Polish dances and parodies women's roles in society to spice up his Brechtian tilt at tyranny.

Given that the casts include such worthwhile singers as Ryszard Minkiewicz, Stefania Toczyska and Iwona Hossa, this Polish visit promises three pithy, witty and entrancing evenings at the opera.

'The Haunted Manor', 20 & 21 April; 'King Roger', 22 April; 'Ubu Rex', 24 & 25 April: Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737; www.sadlers wells.com)

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