MNCHEN – There are definitely more joyful ways to kick off an opera festival than with Krzysztof Penderecki’s poignant, haunting “The Devils of Loudun”.
But there it was: the annual summer festival of the Bavarian State Opera opened here on Monday. Last year’s opener – Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, starring what the local press described as the “dream couple” of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros – felt like a distant memory, his death instinct and Schopenhauer fever dreams strange by comparison. .
But that was a different time in this opera house. It was then led by Nikolaus Bachler, a much-loved leader who stepped down after “Tristan”, and was succeeded by Serge Dorny, with conductor Vladimir Jurowski as musical director.
Their tenure is already taking shape, with signs of things to come everywhere. The company has given its first presentation of Shostakovich’ “The Nose”; next season there are plans for Prokofiev’s immense “War and Peace” and Brett Dean’s recent “Hamlet”. Even more daring is “Devils of Loudun”, a rarity with an uneven track record, which Jurowski has picked up with the passion it takes to reach an audience today.
“In the history of music since ‘Orfeo,'” Dorny said in an interview last fall, “there have been about 50,000 to 60,000 titles and about 80 are played. To keep it a vibrant art form – not to let opera be a mausoleum – we need to broaden that.”
In that vein, enter “The Devils of Loudun,” a 1969 work easier to appreciate than to love. Not for its musical language – it is hardly the most avant-garde product of its time – but for its subject matter, an inexorable glimpse of humanity’s potential for fear and evil, unfolding over two relentless hours. It’s no surprise that the Bavarian State Opera was not full on Monday; and the execution was not without a significant number of strikes. (Judge for yourself: It’ll be streaming on the company’s website over the next month.)
Penderecki’s opera, however, is the kind of art we avoid at our peril.
He adapted his libretto from Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name, a discursive non-fiction novel about the demise of 17th-century priest Urbain Grandier, a libertine accused of dealing with the devil and causing mass demonic possession of Ursuline nuns. to bring. Amid exorcisms and Grandier’s execution at the stake is a study of transcendence, mob rule and political expediency.
Huxley’s book was adapted – as a play by John Whiting in the 1960s and, more infamously, by Ken Russell as the 1971 film ‘The Devils’. The German translation of that play, by Erich Fried, forms the basis for Penderecki’s text. , which bends the material even further in the direction of allegory à la “The Crucible”, making him a martyr of Grandier and subtly connecting his tragedy with the repression and conspiratorial violence of 20th-century totalitarianism, as in his country, Poland.
Penderecki, the terror poet of classical music, tells his story through horror film material. (It’s no surprise that his scores have made their way into the soundtracks of David Lynch films and classics like ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Shining’.) Alarming crescendos tickle the nerves to panic; so does the occasional hazy portamento, jittery pizzicato or eerie shine in the strings. He uses a huge orchestra and chorus, but uses them judiciously, guided less by dramatic thrust than by both sacred and profane realms. This is an opera that nods to the tradition of motets and then makes a musical fart joke.
There is still much in the libretto that resonates. We’ve seen the destructive power of a gang worldwide, both in person and online, and how fear can be used as a weapon for political convenience. Simon Stone, who directed “The Devils of Loudun,” said in an interview with the program book that his starting point for the opera was the vision of female bodies as objects of male fear.
Controlling their bodies is a complicated thing in opera. Jeanne, the prioress who fantasizes about Grandier, is rejected by him and later accuses him of dealing with the devil. She calls on her fellow nuns to feign mass hysteria, a performance Stone considers a form of protest. Whether by coincidence or a quick response to the US Supreme Court’s quashing of Roe v. Wade last week, he has adorned their undergarments and bare breasts with agitprop language like “breaking down patriarchy” and “banishing our bodies.” .
However, the power ultimately rests with the men. Jeanne’s exorcism amounts to rape, including, at one point, being penetrated from behind by a snake. Her campaign against Grandier comes at a tragic price, not least because it becomes a resource for others who were already plotting his destruction.
Loudon is firmly in the present in this production. It’s also, on Bob Cousins’ rotating unit set – now a weary trope in Stone’s productions – reminiscent of Tadao Ando’s powerful reserve Church of the Light in Japan, but distorted by sacrilege into a sort of chilly austerity.
In an interview earlier this year, Stone said his priority with 20th-century and contemporary operas was to make them accessible to casual audiences. He achieves that in “Devils”, seldom deviating from the written word and accentuating, with a touch of gratuity, its horrors, graphic sensuality and, during Grandier’s execution, his painfully endless parade of lashes, here delivered with whips covered with blood-colored paint. .
Stone’s hyper-realistic stagings call for singers who are also skilled as actors; and in Munich he has a fearless, captivating ensemble. On Monday, his Grandier, Wolfgang Koch, who had tested positive for the corona virus on the day of the dress rehearsal. Instead, the role was split, with Jordan Shanahan singing from the pit and Robert Dölle mimicking and speaking onstage, both convincing.
The cast was led by soprano Ausrine Stundyte as Jeanne, who transitioned fluidly between breathless narration and long sung lines, distorting her voice when possessed: squeezing and cracking, leaping to a higher register as the Wicked Witch of the West. Even from the balcony you could see the complex mixture of sorrow, pain and deceit in her eyes.
The opera has so many main and solo roles that it was almost impossible to keep them on stage during the curtain call. But there were highlights: Kevin Conners as Adam and Jochen Kupfer as Mannoury, dark comedic schemers who take advantage of Jeanne’s plight; Danae Kontora as Philippe, a young woman impregnated by Grandier; and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, an unscrupulous surrogate for Cardinal Richelieu.
And the nuns throw themselves around in unity, whether praying or possessed, in serene harmony or atonal cries. Stone ends the opera not with the effigy of Grandier being burned at the stake, but with Jeanne and her colleagues in a chapel, who seem to have a sense of restored order, but no peace as they bathe in a climax of ghostly noises.
That music, as long as the anguish of the opera, didn’t stop on Monday until Jurowski lifted his hands into the well. After all, he was in charge all night: the one who had staged this opera, and who had accompanied it with great dedication and expertise. His gestures on stage were not only directive, but also full of character; no measure of the score came across as ill-considered.
If this is the enthusiasm Jurowski plans to bring to the whole new repertoire of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich has an exciting, sometimes terrifying future in store.
The Devils of Loudun
Until July 7 at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich; Staatsoper.de.