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Carl UNANDER-SCHARIN The King of Fools (Tokfursten)    Cast led by Mats Persson (baritone) and Anna Larsson (contralto) Conductor Michael Bartosch. Caprice CAP 22046

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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


Peter Grahame Woolf

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