Pros: Raw, harsh music well-matched to images of violence and torment; brilliant staging and performances
Cons: Very, very disturbing, though less so than the realities it represents so vividly
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was once all the rage as a hot young avant-garde composer. Born in Debica in 1933, Penderecki studied music first at the Kraców High School for music, with Malawski and, later, Wiechowicz. He benefited immeasurably from the liberalization of Poland in the mid-fifties and, in 1959, he won a competition sponsored by the Youth Circle of the Polish Composers' Union for one of his vocal pieces, Strophes. His music, characterized by tone clusters, harsh orchestration, and jagged vocal lines, was soon in demand both in Poland and internationally. His first major success came with the Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima, for 52 strings, written in 1960. Then, his St. Luke Passion for soloists, speaker, boys' choir, three mixed choirs, and large orchestra, completed in 1966, made a big splash, when performed at the Münster Cathedral in March of that year.
Subject Matter in Brief: Penderecki adapted his libretto for Devils of Loudun from a German translation by Erich Fried of a play by John Robert Whiting. Whiting had drawn much of the factual information from a study published in 1952 by Aldous Huxley entitled The Devils of Loudun. Huxley had carefully reviewed the many documents that had been written in the 17th-century concerning the "mass possession" that had supposedly occurred in the town of Loudun, between 1632 and 1638. Neither Whiting's play nor Penderecki's opera followed the facts of the case precisely and, in fact, the focal character, Urbain Grandier, was given markedly different treatment by the playwright and the composer. What is indisputable, however, is that a large crowd gathered in Loudun on August 18th, 1634 to see Grandier burned at the stake, most responding as though it were some kind of public entertainment event. Grandier had been charged with associating with the devil, fornication, dissolute behavior, and blasphemy. Only the charge of fornication had any merit. The exceptionally handsome Grandier did indeed have a weakness for women. Despite being subjected to excruciating torture, Grandier refused to confess to the other baseless charges. So, his failure to confess was taken as clear proof that the devil had sealed his lips and immunized him against all manner of pain. He was duly burned at the stake.
Chief among the "witnesses" against him was a mentally disturbed nun, Jeanne, the physically-deformed Prioress of the Ursuline Convent, who was obsessed with Grandier, without having ever met him, one on one. She claimed to have been possessed by Grandier, who, she said, was acting as an agent of the devil. Her fellow sisters soon joined in the hysteria, leading to the episode that was termed "mass possession." At one point, a representative of the King, Prince Henri de Condé, succeeded in conclusively debunking the ruse, by presenting a silver container which he claimed to be an ancient relic filled with the actual blood of Christ. Holding it aloft, he succeeded in "curing" the nuns of their demonic possession, at which point he turned the relic upside down to demonstrate that it was, in fact, quite empty.
The real reasons for Grandier's demise were complex. The major factor, in Penderecki's telling of the story, was political conflict. Grandier had opposed Cardinal Richelieu's desire to tear down the walls protecting the town of Loudun. Richelieu, who exerted a powerful influence over Louis XIII, was determined to revoke symbolically the Edict of Nantes which had been signed in Loudun in 1616, extending rights of free worship and work privileges to the Huguenots (the French brand of Calvinists). Richelieu saw the Huguenots as a threat to the dominance of Catholicism in France and elsewhere. Richelieu did finally have his was, convincing Louis XIII to agree to a de facto reversal the edict and, later, Louis XIV to a full legal revocation, in 1685. The practical consequence of these reversals was the persecution of thousands of Calvinists in eastern France and a resurfacing of the religious strife that had caused the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Entire congregations were burned to death, locked inside their churches, if they refused to convert to Catholicism. Grandier, however, was a Catholic priest, not a Calvinist. He was murdered because he stood in the way of the intolerance that the Catholic Church was choosing to promote as official policy.
The second factor evident in Grandier's downfall was the intolerance of communities for those who in any way stand apart – the aloof outsider. Grandier's piety, good looks, and independent spirit all tended to distinguish him from the society in which he lived, so he was ostracized and, finally, eliminated. To that extent, the story here is reminiscent of the one told in Britten's opera, Peter Grimes.
In Whiting's play, there was another factor. He portrayed Grandier as a man suffering an existential crisis, striving for self-destruction. Whiting's interpretation is, in my judgment, a dangerous one, similar to the claim of the schoolyard bully that his victim "was asking for it." My opinion is that Penderecki's interpretation is far closer to the truth behind the countless historical instances in which outsiders have been subjected to intolerance and organized violence by society
In telling this story, Penderecki appears to be trying to make two main points. First, powerful institutions often engage in corrupt and oppressive practices. Penderecki repeatedly demonstrated his genuine concern for the victims of organized violence. Second, Penderecki, a deeply religious man, was underscoring the distinction between being Christ-like (that is, following the teachings of Christ) and the Catholic Church as an institution. Any reasonably honest person, be they Christian or not, recognizes that the Christian Institutions (which was just the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation) have been responsible for an extraordinary amount of highly un-Christian violence and repression, over the centuries, from the Crusades to the Inquisitions, to abuse of children, to murdering pagans and Protestants, to witch burnings, and so forth). The Devils of Loudun is clearly not anti-religious, since the one morally exalted character, Granier, is motivated precisely by his religious convictions and achieves a state of Christ-like grace. The film does, however, stand strongly opposed to the anti-Christ activities sometimes perpetrated by powerful institutions claiming to represent Christ and acting in His name. However much the Catholic authorities in The Devils of Loudun try to justify their actions with the stamp of "official business" or by extracting "confessions" through torture, the more foul their activities are rendered. The rationalizations of the torturers are particularly telling.
Place in the Repertoire: Penderecki composed four operas, but his most successful one was his first, The Devils of Loudun (1969). It is a powerful work when staged and performed well, but has drawn mixed reviews whenever and wherever it has appeared around the world. Penderecki continued to rework this opera up until 1975, but the present recording, made in 1969, would necessarily have to be the original version.
Quality as a Work of Art: Penderecki's musical language was essentially atonal although he gradually expanded his palette and range of techniques in order to enable himself to more fully express the material at hand. Penderecki consistently drew on literary sources for his vocal music, which he then attempted to set according to expressionist precepts, conveying feelings and psychological states as intensely as possible. In his early years, Penderecki usually chose sensational subject matter and was sometimes criticized for that very reason. His musical style, however, is better suited to sensational effects than cerebral or pensive subjects, and as he's turned progressively away from intense material, his music has lost some of its power and immediate appeal to audiences. Penderecki made frequent use of string clusters, tone clusters, microtonal glissandi, frequent leaps, penetrating electronic sounds, vibratos, and woodwind clucking. Penderecki often used pointillistic textures to depict scenes of a comic or grotesque nature. Penderecki's writing for chorus was especially strong and choruses appeared in his operas as well as his religious works. His primary influence was Lutoslawski, but one can also perceive hints of Ligeti in his style.
Musical Performances: American mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos had the most demanding role in this opera, as Jeanne. Troyanos was born in 1938, in New York City. She made her stage debut as a member of the chorus in the original production of The Sound of Music. She made her operatic debut at the New York City Opera in a production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Beginning in 1976, she became a regular at the Metropolitan opera until her tragic demise in 1993. She was one of three superb sopranos who died in that year, all from cancer. The other two were Lucia Popp and Arleen Auger. She appeared in a number of operatic recordings, including notably an operatic version of West Side Story and Solti's highly-prized version of Carmen, for which Troyanos had the title role. Troyanos's vocal and acting performances for this recording are nothing short of brilliant. She is required to depict a variety of degrees of insanity as well as "possession" and some intense sexual fantasizing. Her character was the recipient of the only "gang-enema" I've ever seen depicted on celluloid!
Polish baritone Andrzej Hiolski sang the part of Grandier, the martyr. He was born in 1922 in Lviv and died in 2000 in Kraków. He studied at the Lviv Conservatory and made his debut in 1944 at the Old Theater in Kraków. Other headline performers for this recording included Polish bass-baritone Bernard Ladysz as Father Barré, German bass Hans Sotin as Father Rangier, German actor Rolf Mamero as Guilleaume de Cerisay, and tenor Helmut Melchert as Baron de Laubardement, the King's Commissioner. I very much liked the performances of Heinz Blankenburg as the physician, Kurt Marschner as the chemist, and, especially, William Workman as Prince Henri de Condé.
The Devils of Loudun requires massive musical forces, including nineteen soloists, five choruses (comprising the nuns, soldiers, guards, children, and monks), an orchestra, and taped bell sounds. The orchestra requires four flutes (including two piccolos and one alto flute), two English horns, an Eb clarinet, a double-bass clarinet, two alto saxophones, two baritone saxophones, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, six horns, four Bb trumpets, a D trumpet, four trombones, two tubas, four percussion players, twenty violins, eight violas, eight celli, six basses, a harp, piano, harmonium, organ, and an electric guitar. Penderecki employed these forces mostly in small ensemble groups to elicit sound masses of a particular timbre expressive of a particular situation. The orchestra was employed in its entirety only for the most dramatic moments. Sometimes Penderecki's score called for the string instruments to use special kinds of bowing techniques to achieve unusual tonal colors.
The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra was conducted by Marek Janowski for this recording. Janowski was born in 1939 in Warsaw, Poland, but grew up in Wuppertal, Germany during World War II. His father was killed in Poland during the war. Janowski was Music Director at Freiburg and then at the Dortmund Opera. Later, he was Kapellmeister for the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, from 1986 to 1990. In 2000, he became the principle conductor for the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, where he will step down this year. He is also the chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in 2005, Janowski also served as one of three leading conductors for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It is amazing enough that conductors can produce the sounds we associate with a Mozart or Beethoven symphony but to generate the kind of seemingly chaotic sound masses demanded in a Penderecki score is altogether incredible. Yet, Janowski makes it all sound totally under control.
Staging: The opportunities afforded by multiple cameras and cinematic editing did a lot to improve the impact of the staging concept of stage director Konrad Swinarski. Although Swinarski's staging was criticized after the original live performance in Hamburg, I thought this filmed version utterly amazing in its intensity. It goes beyond realism, as is intended for expressionistic works. We see deformed street people lolling about, the legs and feet of a recently hanged man dangling down, the sexual fantasies of Jeanne, and Grandier's legs being broken while he's shackled in the torture apparatus. Although the film is in color, the hues have been drained to a minimum, for many of the scenes, so that the blacks and whites of good and evil are fully implied.
Technical Aspects: This Arthaus Musik DVD is a 1969 studio recording of essentially the same production with which the opera premiered on June 20th, 1969 at the Hamburg State Opera. The only obvious difference in personnel is that Marek Janowski conducted the performance in the studio, while Henryk Czyz had conducted the live premiere. The video is presented in full-screen format and is coded for worldwide playback. The audio format is mono. The performance language is Polish. Menu language options include English, French, German, and Spanish. Subtitle options include English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The opera's running time is 108 minutes. There's an excellent companion booklet, with a cast listing, chapter titles, synopsis, and an essay about the composer and the work. The synopsis and the essay are repeated in English, French, and German. There are no DVD extras.
Bottom-Line: First off, this opera is not for timid spirits. It is emotionally draining and graphic in its portrayals of torture, exorcism, forced enema, insanity, deformity, and burning at the stake. In its own way, the music is as graphic in representing these disturbing ideas as are the visual images. That said, for those who have the stomach, this is a powerful condemnation of torture and the other kinds of violence and oppression too often perpetrated in the name of conformity, religious institutions, and official justice. I feel certain that if every American were forced to watch this opera, we would not have reelected known torturers in 2004. This is a film that reveals the darkest landscapes of human nature as well as the state of grace required to stand tall against such evils. I'm giving this film five stars but would nevertheless not recommend it to a friend. This is the kind of film that you either need to come to on your own initiative or not at all.
You can easily access my other opera reviews using the following lists:
Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Metalluk's Twenty Best Pre-Romantic (Baroque & Classicism) Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty-five Best Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty Best Non-Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Thirty Best Operas of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Metalluk's Best Opera from Each Decade of the 20th-Century, on DVD