By Conrad, Peter
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4687
In Poland, parcelled up between Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1772 to 1914, patriotism was a love that dared not speak its name. At least it could not do so in words; music, however, made a more elliptical protest against oppression. The liltingly insidious dance rhythms in Stanislaw Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor--performed by Polish National Opera during its visit to Sadler's Wells last month--tweak the political conscience of two decommissioned soldiers. After two performances in 1865, it was banned for 50 years by the Russian censors.
The responsibility of resistance devolves on an ineffectual prince in Krzysztof Penderecki's Ubu Rex, the highlight of the Sadler's Wells visit. The Polish king is murdered at a military parade by the oafish upstart Ubu and his lewd wife. They then gobble up the country's wealth; the widowed queen exhorts her wimpish son never to renounce his claim to the throne, but he wanders off and never reappears. Penderecki's opera premiered in Munich in 1991, after the Russian empire had fallen apart. Nevertheless, this fatalistic farce assumes that Poland's problems are insoluble, and jokes about the musical consolation in which Moniuszko so fervently believed.
The score is a grab bag of jeering allusions. It begins and ends with a quotation from the sailors' chorus in Wagner's Flying Dutchman. The Dutchman restlessly voyages in quest of redemption; Ubu and his gang, routed by the Russians, flee Poland and travel towards one of the safe havens that the international community offers to deposed dictators. An ensemble in which the hero and his attendant thugs conspire over a greasy feast of tripe, tapioca, ducks' rumps and bulls' balls recalls the exhibition of gluttony in Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, but again there is a difference. Weill's gormandiser eats himself to death: Ubu belches, farts, loosens his belt, and swaggers off to commit further gross excesses.
Music, for these naked apes, is the sound of a crass or fatuous insensitivity. Mother Ubu (magnificently performed by Anna Lubanska) delivers an aria that is a wordless and therefore meaningless rhapsody. Her husband (Pawel Wunder) ignores her vocal virtuosity and watches football on television. Penderecki separates unstable Poland from ritualised Russia in a style that pays solemn homage to Mussorgsky. Even battle, despite a mocking quotation from the trumpet reveilles in Prokofiev's War and Peace, offers no chance for heroic redress. The showdown between the two countries involves an exchange of paper darts, bog rolls and politically incorrect epithets. …