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Work of the Week – Krzysztof Penderecki: Ubu Rex

Penderecki’s first and only comic opera Ubu Rex, based on the 1896 Theatre of the Absurd play ‘Ubu Roi’ by Alfred Jarry, was first performed in 1991 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. On 20 June Opera Baltycka in Gdañsk presents a production by Janusz Wiśniewski.

Set in two acts, Ubu Rex opens with a “duet of sleeping noises”. The action begins with the cowardly and greedy captain Ubu being persuaded by his wife to murder the king and take the throne for himself. Their plan is successful, and Ubu’s first act as king is to order meat and gold to be handed out to the people to win their loyalty, with the stage direction “Everyone is dancing and gorging. Great funfair.” Ubu quickly descends into tyranny, ordering the death of the aristocrats, judges and financial ministers and implementing policies to satiate his own financial greed. The oppressive leader’s rule is ultimately defeated by the Russian army but Ubu escapes, setting sail with his entourage to a new land.

Penderecki labelled his work ‘Opera buffa’, and in doing so refers to the great masters of the genre including Rossini, whom he held in great esteem. In writing the work, Penderecki found freedom in escaping the pressure of new and radical composition, instead taking a more broad-minded approach to the music.

To write a comic opera one has to not only have experienced a lot, but also be able to look at these experiences with perspective. One must be able to laugh at oneself, something that cannot be done at the age of thirty. – Krzysztov Penderecki

The Gdansk production, premiered in 2013 on the occasion of Penderecki’s 80th birthday, will be toured to the Musikfestspiele Saar in Kaiserslautern on 27 June and in Saarbrücken on 29 June.

Photo: Sebastian Cwikla