This chamber opera in two acts distils Elgard Johnsson's account of his own
experience of hospitalisation in the 1960s with seemingly incurable
schizophrenia. He was eventually helped to recover and subsequently became
a psychotherapist himself, and his young therapist became an internationally
famous researcher into the treatment of this devastating illness.
Carl Unander-Scharin is a largely self-taught Swedish composer - on this
showing, one whose name should become known outside his own country. He is
a professional singer who has been composing for some twenty years and studied
electro-acoustic music in the early '90s. He counts his real debut as a composer
with his William Blake songs of 1989 - I should like to hear them.
The King of Fools (1995-96) is Unander-Scharin's first stage opera, composed
for the voices of the singers who took part in its successful premiere and
also for this 1998 recording. The small instrumental ensemble has a quartet
of solo strings, six winds and percussion, with recorder, synthesiser and
'radio-organist', all used with economy, precision and inventiveness throughout.
The singers double in different roles, sometimes as both patients and hospital
staff. The musical organisation is extremely lucid, based upon whole-tone
and semitone scales. The protagonist is accompanied by two motifs, high strings
in his interaction with the outer world, the synthesiser for his hallucinations.
In the first act he loses his grip on reality and descends into psychosis
and total detachment. In the second act, seven years later, human contact
from an empathic social worker leads to therapeutic help and a tenuous recovery.
This is a very bald summary of a multi-layered and subtle work which grows
from a brilliantly conceived libretto, which characterises sharply the world
of mental patients in Sweden at the time, with an emphasis on mechanistic
physical treatments with drugs and ECT, whilst ignoring the content and pain
of the patient's inner world (Elgard Johnsson, writing in 1985, acknowledges
changes in standard treatment methods by that time). Pathos and poetic imagery
coexist with cruel caricature.
The performances and recording are exemplary and the music, both original
and accessible, always counterpoints the vocal line, never overwhelming the
singers - music theatre, perhaps, rather than the elaboration and complexity
of most contemporary operas. The lavishly illustrated 100 page booklet includes
the Swedish text, and has a useful English summary at the back, with track
numbers to make the scenes easy to follow, but it is regrettable that space
was not given to full simultaneous translations. There are instead very detailed
CVs of all concerned, amounting to 25 pages, nine of them in English - does
anyone read those lists of singers' studies and appearances, which are also
the bane of so many concert programmes?
Do not be put off by a subject which might seem unappealing. This is a wonderful
conception, marvellously realised, absorbing throughout and moving too -
once heard, never forgotten. It should be considered seriously for UK production,
maybe at the Huddersfield or Almeida festivals?
Peter Grahame Woolf