The King of Fools is more than a chamber opera. It's part of the clinical record of a leap forward in mental-health care

CD King of Fools - Tokfursten (1999)
Opera News, The Metropolitan Opera Guild
John W. Freeman

The King of Fools is more than a chamber opera. It's part of the clinical record of a leap forward in mental-health care, a patient's-eye view starting when Elgard Jonsson, after a traumatic childhood and a schizophrenic crisis at age sixteen, entered a mental hospital in the summer of 1967. He received treatment that was then standard — electroshock therapy and drastic medication — to which he responded by sinking ever deeper into inner isolation. But he lived to tell his tale, thanks to the appearance in 1973 of a psychiatric social-worker trainee, Barbro Sandin, who believed in a more humanistic approach, via entry to the patient's inner world. The creators of Tokfursten have taken this cue, following her into the maze of the patient-therapist relationship.
Sandin was on her way to a distinguished career as an innovator in the treatment of schizophrenia. Jonsson, her patient, eventually was able to report, "After many years of hard work, I was free from my crazy firmament." He wrote his autobiographical book The King of Fools, became a psychotherapist himself and collaborated on this opera. His colleagues in working out the libretto were a composer, Carl Unander-Scharin; a stage director, Nils Spangenberg; and a poet, Magnus Carlbring. The work's premiere production, at Vadstena Castle in 1996, was the basis for this 1999 recording from Caprice, produced in Stockholm. The Vadstena Academy has a long, honorable record of producing chamber opera in intimate, creative ways.
Madness has been fair game for opera composers from the earliest years, but during the days of Handel and Donizetti, it was portrayed from the outside. To recreate the harrowing experience of mental illness from within the victim's psyche, without the enteric coating of stylized convention, is a deeper challenge. The man for the job in The King of Fools was Unander-Scharin, born in Stockholm in 1964, a leading tenor on the Royal Opera roster as well as composer of several operas, also known as a recitalist and Bach singer. He produced a texturally subtle score, elegantly spare, poetic and witty, that delivers its punches where they count. The chamber orchestra (fourteen players, including the composer as "radio-organist") starts its overture stealthily, serves as a discreet support and commentator and turns sharp or dull or unruly as the action does. Working from his protagonist's point of view, the composer puts his aural imagination at the patient's service. Instead of the beckoning stereotypes of avant-garde, rock opera or Eurotrash, The King of Fools relies on the personal touch, drawing its vocabulary from across a broad contemporary musical spectrum.
Baritone Mats Persson and contralto Anna Larsson are the main cogs in the well-meshed vocal ensemble, playing out the dynamics between evasive patient and motivated therapist. There are threatening, sad, mocking and amusing moments for the seven other singers as well, six of them taking multiple roles. Conductor Michael Bartosch pulls together and shapes the unorthodox setup of this chamber ensemble with spontaneity and precision. The Swedish libretto is presented without side-by-side translation, but at the back of the booklet (pages 83–95) can be found the English version, an adequate resumé even though it doesn't specify which character is singing which lines (usually pretty evident.) Making one's way through this novel, gripping work isn't a walk in the park, but for those lured by its tough subject, the trip will prove revealing, relevant, perhaps cathartic as well.