Penderecki's Ubu Rex, the third of the Polish National Opera's offerings at Sadler's Wells, is based on Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896).
Penderecki's Ubu Rex, the third of the Polish National Opera's offerings at Sadler's Wells, is based on Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896). Jarry's play, a kind of angry young man's Baron Munchausen meets Adolf Hitler dating from the era of Schnitzler, Kraus and Wedekind, could as easily be from the 1960s, though using comedy to satirize incipient tyranny goes back to Aristophanes.
This spoof of a jumped-up Sejanus (sung in German) needed an Expressionistic score, and Penderecki provides it. There's a nausea in the contrapuntal outbursts of the oafish plotters, or the mock-sleaze of the scattered jazz-cum-pop accompaniments, but that's the point: nauseating, repetitive mantras for a nauseating era. Opting for a hyperventilated, in-your-face approach, the Poles got it right - even if the 1990s score seems a throwback to the Sixties.
The tenor Pawel Wunder made a suitably awful upstart monarch, and the mezzo Anna Lubanska - the fine Jadwiga in the company's earlier staging of Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor - excelled as his dreadful Lady Macbeth (there's a nice moment when he tries to switch her off with the TV remote control). Ryszard Morka was an odious Tsarina; Piotr Nowacki, as the main plotter, made more impact than in the Moniuszko; Krzysztof Smit led the louts who kept bursting into Bach fughettas. Every move seemed honed in Krzysztof Warlikowki's neatly irritating staging; the designer Malgorzata Szczesniak nicely mixed colour co-ordination and clashes. Only the odd scene change fouled up.
Smit resurfaced in the concert performances of Szyman-owski's King Roger, much better known here since Simon Rattle's award-winning EMI recording, which caps - though not always betters - the Poles' own recordings. Born of the white heat of the composer's lush "oriental" period, the opera gains - or loses - from the libretto by the composer's cousin, Jaroslav Iwaszkiewicz, whose shimmering prose verges on Oscar Wilde illustrated by not so much Beardsley as Klimt. It's based on Euripides' The Bacchae, and involves a similar young king and seditious shepherd-divinity, reflecting the collision of three cultures - pagan, Christian and Arab.
Jacek Kaspszyk - whose orchestra put in a taxing six consecutive nights - drew forth fabulous sounds after a slightly sub-fusc opening. Ryszard Minkiewicz's Shepherd has never seemed to me as alluring as the veteran Wieslaw Ochman's, but Romuald Tearowicz was a resonant, Orthodox-sounding High Priest; Olga Pasiecznik was an impassioned young queen; and Wojciech Drabowicz - a baritone Covent Garden should look at - gave the vocal performance of the week as the King who, like certain leaders today, deems it necessary to effect the odd U-turn.Reuse content