Penderecki Ubu rex

A bold, brash production fits perfectly with this satire on power/corruption

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Penderecki Ubu rex

  • Ubu rex

Here is the perfect antidote to the pious lamentations that pervade Penderecki’s later choral and symphonic works; it’s quite different from his three earlier operas, too. Ubu Rex was written for Munich in 1991, and had its Polish premiere in October 2003 – the performance recorded here – in a production that was also seen in London last September. The German translation of Alfred Jarry’s original 1888 text, Ubu Roi, was used, but the booklet also includes a bawdier, more colloquial Polish version from which the no-less-bawdy English text derives.

These multiple perspectives fit well with a score whose pungency involves a good deal of parody: most prominently, the kind of high-kicking, polka-cum-cancan style in which Rossini and Offenbach merge seamlessly into Shostakovich and Schnittke. In two of the longer scenes this idiom becomes rather relentless for the CD listener, and the printed text (especially when shouted and otherwise declaimed) can be difficult to follow in places. But the booklet helps to maintain interest by including a plentiful supply of production photographs, and the opera’s overtly farcical episodes, depicting Ubu’s improbable rise to kingship, are balanced by some of Penderecki’s most probing, expressive music. This occurs in the more lyrical moments granted to Ma Ubu and Queen Rosamunde, while the scene for the Russian Tsar (sung by two basses) is a marvel of sinister majesty, evoking Boris Godunov and – perhaps intentionally – appearing to swerve towards Finlandia in preparation for the alarming news that ‘the Russians are coming’.

Penderecki planned an opera on Ubu Roi for many years before the easing of political restrictions permitted a broad satire on the theme that, while all power corrupts, absolute power does so with maximum absurdity. The work did not go down well in Munich, though there is a pleasing degree of subtlety to some of the musical allusions, as well as a special intensity in the highly dissonant transitional music after the battle in Act 2, when legions of Poles are pointlessly slaughtered. Neverthe- less, the atmosphere of this self-declared opera buffa is for the most part raw and brash, as Jarry’s original conception requires.

Great demands are placed on the histrionic skills of the principals, notably Pawel Wunder as the grotesquely over-confident, sublimely indestructible Pa Ubu – a role taken at the premiere by Robert Tear. Wunder deploys his commanding high tenor alongside a wealth of guttural plosives and screechings which, miraculously, avoid tedium, and keep the story moving at breakneck speed.

This is an admirable ensemble effort, dependent on split-second timing from the singers of smaller roles as well as the chorus, and although idiomatic German enunciation suffers, that simply adds to the bitterly comic effect. Special credit for the maintenance of both buoyancy and coherence goes to the conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, and the recording provides a good balance, the many bold orchestral effects as clearly projected as the constant changes in vocal ensemble and character. Given the high-energy production, stage noise is not excessive, either.

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