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Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Krzystof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)

The Devils of Loudon (1969) [108:00]

An Opera in Three Acts based on John Whiting’s dramatization of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon” in the German translation by Erich Fried.

Father Rangier HANS SOTIN
Guilleaume de Cerisay ROLF MAMERO

Directed for Television by Joachim Hess
Artistic Director: Rolf Liebermann
General Artistic Director: Krzysztof Penderecki

The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra
The Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera
Conducted by Marek Janowski

Produced by Polyphon Film und Fernsehgesellschaft for NDR Polyphon, 1969.

ARTHAUS MUSIC 101279 [108:00]

Urbain Grandier was a Roman Catholic priest who was burned at the stake on August 18, 1634 after having been convicted of conspiring with Satan to corrupt an order of Ursuline nuns. While Grandier had forsaken his vows of chastity and celibacy, and was known as a bit of a cad, the whole demonic affair was the fabrication of Jeanne des Anges, prioress of the Ursuline convent whose own sexual obsession with the wayward priest led her to invent the entire possession story. Grandier’s case was further complicated by his clash with the powerful and corrupt Cardinal Richelieu, who needed the meddlesome priest to be out of the way in order to further his political agenda.

The story is famous and has been recounted in a number of modern works including the so-called “historical study” by Aldous Huxley in 1952, a story by Polish author Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, a film based on that story by Jerzy Kawalerowicz in 1960, a successful British adaptation for the stage by Robert Whiting and a highly controversial film from 1970 by maverick film maker Ken Russell.

The story first came to Penderecki’s attention in 1964, while he was completing his monumental St. Luke Passion. The composer’s deep compassion for the victims of the Holocaust made this story of religious intolerance coupled with political intrigue and the persecution of innocents all but irresistible, and thus was born his first opera, which opened to considerable criticism at the International Society for New Music’s 43rd festival in Hamburg in 1969. Many of the problems were the result of Konrad Swinarski’s over-reliance on historical accuracy and authenticity which in effect obliterated Penderecki’s desire to present a piece of history as an allegory for modern times and events.

Almost immediately after the premiere, the work was taken into the studio and filmed for television, one of the earliest such projects filmed in color. With the camera’s ability to focus the viewer on specific scenes and characters, undistracted by peripheral action, Swinarski’s vision was far better able to be portrayed, and it is clear that this filmed version of the opera serves it better than a stage production could.

Why then, has this work, which even at a distance of some forty years is still chillingly captivating laid dormant? A number of issues could be at play. First, the music itself is characteristic of a certain time, and although perfectly suited for this story and for its visual telling, requires a great deal of work on the part of the listener to comprehend. Penderecki was at this period in his work using techniques such as the creation of “sound bands” or large swaths of aural color that were created by random repetition of rhythmic gestures and often approximated pitches. This effect works well with crowd scenes and it successfully depicts confusion, rage, and mass hysteria. Where it does not work as well is in the presentation of dialogue between individual characters. Penderecki’s disjunct and angular vocal writing leaves the listener tired after a time, and one’s thoughts start to wander away from the drama and more toward sympathy for the singers who had to learn and memorize this challenging score. The composer’s signature techniques are most effective in the orchestral writing, where they sound as “normal” as any modern suspense film score.

This production finds its greatest success in its visuals. Period costumes, dark in hue set against a bleak stone background immediately foreshadow the ominous and terrifying events to come. The setting is joyless, treacherous, lecherous and foreboding. Swinarski is also quite adept at portraying the subtleties of hidden drama. One is struck by such devices as the manipulation of the ignorant and uneducated masses to achieve the political ends of the more powerful main characters. He also uses the power of religious dogma to stunning effect in the way that the Ursuline sisters are whipped up into a manic frenzy, fully believing that they are possessed with evil spirits, and who willingly submit to repeated exorcisms, staged for show by the priests in power.

The work is also well served by its remarkable and well chosen cast. The late lamented Tatiana Troyanos as Jeanne and baritone Andrezej Hiolski as Grandier turn in brilliant and believable performances. In spite of the overtly emotional nature of the roles, both characters inspire a strange combination of reactions including disdain, repulsion and sympathy. Bernard Ladysz and Hans Sotin aptly play the priest exorcists, duped into service by men they believe to be righteous and used as pawns in an evil scheme. Also noteworthy are the performances of Kurt Marschner and Heinz Blankenburg, a surgeon and a chemist whose personal vendetta against Grandier is played out with sinister abandon. One could hardly ask for a stronger cast, with each member performing admirably as both singer and actor.

This is not for the faint of heart. Konrad Swinarski spares little and the scenes of nudity and torture are undisguised, which is a bit surprising for 1969. But then again, it was made for German television, and the Germans have never been prudes. Whether one could call this opera a masterpiece is open for discussion. That it is an impressive period piece, and a fine example of its genre and style goes without saying, and for that historical perspective alone, it is worthy of one’s time.

Kevin Sutton

- a stark and bleak drama. Dark and yet surprisingly beautiful in its overt portrayal of intrigue, religious zeal and man’s cruelty to his fellow man.

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