Polish National Opera Ubu Rex

Ubu Rex

Pa Ubu – Pawel Wunder
Ma Ubu – Anna Lubanska
King Wenceslas – Aleksander Teliga
Queen Rosamund – Izabella Klosinska
Boseslas – Anna Karasinska
Ladislas – Jeanette Bozałek
Bucksheelas – Rafal Bartminski
Tsar – Mieczyslaw Milun
Tsarina – Rafal Siwek
Bandog – Piotr Nowacki
General Lassie – Robert Dymowski
Stanislas Leszczynski – Adam Kruszewski
Seven louts/ Mercenaries:
Pila – Magdalena Andreew-Siwek
Kotys – Krzysztof Szymt
Giron – Przemysław Firek
4th lout – Jacek Parol
5th lout – Czesław Gałka
6th lout – Ryszard Ciesla
7th lout – Ryszard Wroblewski
Messenger – Jerzy Krysiak

Soloists, Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra of Polish National Opera
Jacek Kaspszyk

Director – Krzystof Warlikowski
Designer – Małgorzata Szczesniak
Choreography – Saar Magal
Lighting – Felice Ross
Video – Denis Gueguin

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 24 April, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

It is a brave and confident company that takes a relatively unknown contemporary opera to a foreign capital city as part of its showcase. Whatever one thinks of Ubu Rex, Polish National Opera did very well by London to allow us an opportunity to see this work. Ubu Rex, based on Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, aims to put on stage this satire on political opportunism as an opera buffa or burlesque.

It was premiered in 1991 in the Munich Opera Festival at the Bavarian State Opera in an overly busy production by August Everding with an excellent cast that included Robert Tear and Doris Soffel as the Ubus, and although critically pasted was one of the popular evenings of that festival. I’d be interested to see how the piece is received in Poland, where some of the visual references might be clearer or evoke a more personal response. Here, again sung in German, it was also given a rather busy production that accords with the rather frenetic pace of most of the music. The production was decidedly more contemporary in feel than the original one, the initial conspiracy being hatched in the Ubus’ apartment with some modern furniture and dominated by a huge TV on which most of the events were projected as they occurred. The walls could be either transparent or opaque allowing the audience to see what was going out in the wider world – or not as the case required.

Pa Ubu, one of the King’s servants who stages a coup, assassinating nearly all the Polish royal family, who then goes on to bankrupt the country and leads it into a disastrous war with Russia, was excellently sung and athletically portrayed by Paweł Wunder. He is on stage most of the time and never seemed to tire, and his words were always audible. His wife, the schemer or Lady Macbeth of the pairing, was amusingly portrayed by Anna Lubanska, who confirmed the good impression one had of her earlier in the week in the Moniusko opera. She has a very beautiful voice and this difficult music seems to hold no terrors for her – and she displayed a real virtuoso coloratura technique. I liked the way her character followed the fashion of the queen – at the parade at which the coup takes place she was wearing an identical lime-green outfit that the queen had been seen wearing on TV in the previous scene. Later on she had obviously appropriated all the queen’s old outfits. She really entered into the burlesque spirit of the piece, as did most of the cast.

Most of the other characters are not so well drawn musically or dramatically, though Izabella Klosinska made much of the small role of the Queen with her premonitions of the coup, and Piotr Nowacki as Pa Ubu’s principal accomplice Bandog, who later is disgraced and defects to the Russian side, stood out.

Much depends on one’s reaction to the music, to Penderecki’s pastiche and appropriation of the music of other composers – notably Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mussorgsky and Mozart. The resulting mixture is not ‘difficult’, as much of Penderecki’s music can be, but it can be rather relentless – though I liked the use of on-stage and side-stage bands and side-stage chorus. The quieter scene that takes place in the Russian Duma, with many overtones of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, was a welcome calm moment in the middle of the piece, and I liked both the Tsar and Tsarina being sung by basses both, singing together usually with the Tsarina taking the lower line. These parts were wittily and sonorously sung with Mieczyslaw Milun as the Tsar and Rafał Siwek as a hilarious bearded bee-hived Tsarina.

On this showing I also felt that the scene in the Polish Parliament as Pa and Ma Ubu systematically remove all political opposition – the aristocracy, the judiciary, the civil service – and then start taking state income and property into their own ownership rather overstayed its welcome, although it was effectively and clearly staged.

One could argue that the score lacks an individual compositional voice, but the opera is about appropriation of power, money and ideology – so why not realise this in the musical score? I wonder if this was the composer’s intent? Nevertheless, Jacek Kaspszyk led his players though the score with much brio and enthusiasm and much of the musical satire registered; the orchestra really responded with style to his direction – the brass especially. The audience responded pretty enthusiastically, so I hope Polish National Opera feels its gamble paid off. The company has demonstrated variety and a spirit of adventurousness this last week. I have also heard some voices I would be more than glad to hear again.

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