May 2005

Penderecki - Ubu Rex
Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Teatr Wielki/Polish National Opera, Warsaw
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Accord ACD 133-2
Format: CD
Released: 2004

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

This raucous two-act opera is conspicuously different from Penderecki’s sober and deep-felt lamentations on the horrors and tragedies of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Loudun, and different from the radiant innocence of his Paradise Lost. It’s a super-Pythonesque take, one might say, on the famous black comedy that initiated the "theater of the absurd" in 1896, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Here is Penderecki, no less intense but relishing the broad humor and biting, pre-Brechtian world of Jarry’s brutish old anti-hero who is devoid of charm, glamour or any redeeming quality. Wagner, Rossini, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Weill and even Bernstein are effectively mimicked here and there, and yet Penderecki achieves a whole that is curiously his own.

The text, in German, was fashioned largely by the composer from Jarry’s own. A recurring chorus sums up the tenor of the work at the end, as Pa and Ma Ubu, following their murderous, graft-ridden take-over of Poland and a war lost to the Russian tsar, gather the remnants of their thuggish crew to set out for the New World. In Anna Kaspszyk’s English translation it runs:

"With the first rays of the morning light, we swiftly run to where amidst the socially upright we can watch again how bullshit is spun! Oh what fun it’ll be! Whoopee! Whoopee! Oh what fun it’ll be!"

The live performance, given in October 2003 in honor of Penderecki’s 70th birthday and his 50th year as a composer, has been splendidly recorded by Teatr Wiekli, with unobtrusively minimal applause left in. The singers are without exception committed and persuasive; the orchestra, which has a huge and colorful part in the drama, is first-rate; and Jacek Kaspszyk, the overall hero of this enterprise, richly confirms the strong impression he made in earlier recordings with both Polish and British orchestras. The booklet includes not only a comprehensive synopsis and trilingual text, but also a generous helping of pictures of the stage production.