Krzysztof Penderecki’s two-act, opera buffa, “Ubu Rex,” was
written in 1990, after a long gestation period. A Prologue sets
the scene, and Act One finds Ubu awakening to the sound of
a whistle, blown by his wife, Ma Ubu. In retaliation, he
threatens to harm her, and she suggests that he transfer his
violent intentions to the King. Unexpected guests arrive, and
Ma Ubu serves them food, while encouraging Ubu to eat his
cabbage soup. Encouraged by his wife’s suggestion to assume
the Polish throne, Ubu announces his plans to his guests.
However, when summoned to the Palace, he fears that the
King has learned of his plot.
The next scene depicts Polish King Wenceslas and his family,
tending to their bees. Upon Ubu’s arrival, he is decorated by the
King for his service to the crown and to Poland. King Wenceslas
is then warned of Ubu’s treacherous intentions by Queen
Rosamunde, who was awakened from a dream depicting Ubu’s
plans. The King ignores her premonitions, instead inviting Ubu
to participate in a parade, which is scheduled for the following
day. Ubu returns home intact, to the relief of his wife and guests.
He then finalizes his plans for the coup, which will take place
during the parade. Ma Ubu administers an oath of commitment
to their guests, who will assist in the murderous rampage.
The following parade scene begins with Queen Rosamunde
again warning her husband to avoid Ubu. He ignores her,
inviting Ubu to join his inspection of the guards. During this
inspection, Ubu signals his mercenaries to act, and they murder
the Royal family, with the exception of the King’s son,
Bucksheelas, who manages to escape.
Ubu is reluctant to share his wealth with the masses, who are
expecting him to be a benevolent King. Ma Ubu persuades him to
present the people with stocks, shares and cabbage soup. In turn,
he requests that the people pay their taxes, yet the crowd does
Act Two finds Ubu and his wife on their thrones at the Polish
Parliament. He has no further use for his military captain,
Bandog, and imprisons him, based upon false conspiracy charges.
Ubu then continues his power-mad rampage by abolishing the
Peers of the Realm, the Judiciary, and the Financial Advisory
committees, thereby confiscating their properties. He also
decides to personally collect and hoard all of the spoils of
In the meantime, Bandog has managed to escape from prison. He
ventures to Russia, where he presents himself to the Tsar and
Tsarina and asks for their assistance. Bandog is awarded
a commission in the Russian army.
The Polish peasants are then visited by Ubu, and despite their
pleas of poverty, he claims all of their possessions as his own.
The arrival of a letter from Bandog informs Ubu of his alliance
with Russia and the Tsar’s impending invasion of Poland. The
Tsar intends to return the throne to its rightful heir, Bucksheelas.
Ubu realizes that he must now fight a war.
While Ubu and his troops await their conflict with Russia, he
orders them to eat and sing. A messenger arrives, indicating
a rebellion by the Polish people, and describing Ma Ubu’s
escape from the fray. The Russians arrive and attack
Ubu’s troops. During the battle, Ubu murders Bandog and
then directly attacks the Tsar. The Tsar wounds Ubu, who
attempts to flee. Before he can murder Ubu, the Tsar trips
and falls into a ditch. Leaving the Tsar for dead, Ubu and
his troops believe that they are victorious. However, the
Tsar is rescued by his troops and the Russians defeat Ubu
and his men, whereupon Ubu flees.
Wandering across snowy Lithuania, Ubu’s troops each drop
dead. By this time, only Ubu and his original mercenaries are
left. Ubu decides that he needs to sleep, before planning his
next move. Just then, Ma Ubu wanders in with stolen goods.
She reunites with her husband. Together they sing of their
unfortunate circumstances while rejoicing to be with one another.
The Epilogue finds Ubu and Ma Ubu sailing with their
mercenaries to the New World, where they hope to find new
opportunities and seek asylum.
This opera is a veritable “polyglot” of musical styles, and a
departure from the Penderecki avant-garde compositions of
the 1950’s and early 1960’s. In this opera dealing with the
assassination of a ruling monarch, Penderecki (1933 – )
gleefully pokes fun at elements of Neoclassicism, Romanticism,
and several other genres. One example of these “pastiche-like”
elements adopted by Penderecki is found in the Russian liturgical
style of Act Two, Scene Two, befitting its Moscow setting. This
music wouldn’t be “out-of-place” in works by Nikolay
Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) or Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881).
This world-premiere recording of “Ubu Rex,” is from a live
performance, and exhibits a genuine theatricality. Under the
direction of Maestro Jacek Kaspszyk, the combined forces of
the Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Teatr Wielki and
The Polish National Opera – Warsaw provides the virtuosic
performances that are required by this score.
“Ubu Rex” is a well-recorded opera and an example of good,
satirical fun! Unlike Penderecki’s aforementioned, avant-garde
style, it is accessible if not particularly significant. In fact, it’s
the first opera that I’ve heard by this composer, and I’m glad
I checked it out.