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Krzysztof Penderecki: Die Teufel von Loudon
23 Sep 2007

PENDERECKI: Die Teufel von Loudon

Of the operas composed in the latter half of the twentieth century, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudon is a significant contribution to the repertoire.

Krzysztof Penderecki: Die Teufel von Loudon

Tatiana Troyanos, Andrzej Hiolski, Bernard Ladysz, Hans Sotin, Rolf Mamero, Helmut Melchert, The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, Marek Janowski, conductor.

Arthaus Musik 101279 [DVD]

$24.98  Click to buy

Commissioned by the director of the Hamburg Opera, Rolf Liebermann, Penderecki based his libretto for Die Teufel von Loudon on Erich Fried’s German translation of Robert Whiting’s 1964 drama The Devils of Loudon. That play is, in turn, based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical study The Devils of Loudon. In the latter work Huxley explored a single event, the execution in 1634 of the French priest Urbain Grandier, who was actually accused and convicted of sorcery. From Huxley’s perspective, the execution is hardly an historic footnote, but a complex incident that involves the mingling of personal obsession and political intrigue, and Huxley’s prose certainly demonstrates its relevance for modern life. Such implications were not lost on Penderecki, who used this as the basis of his first opera, which was given its premiere in Hamburg in 1969. This DVD brings into print the 1969 television production of the opera that produced by Liebermann, just two years before Ken Russell released his film based on Whiting's play, which was entitled The Devils.

Liebermann's production is quite advanced for its time, because it is not a filmed opera, but a production conceived cinematically. Closeups, cross-cuts, fade-ins and fade-outs, flashbacks, and other effects are essential to the visual idiom and are used to underscore the opera. More than adding to the score or serving as an adornment of it, the cinematic elements are integral to Liebermann's film of Penderecki's opera. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the third scene of the second act (“Liebe Schwester in Christo”) with its superimposed image of the orgiastic scene in its fleeting effective rendered more effectively on stage. The closeup of Father Barré’s face in the same scene and its almost blurring closeup underscores his wonder at what was just related to him, with the cinematic rendering wholly in line with the musical content. These and other elements of the film are essential to understanding the work as presented in this idiom. Produced with the knowledge of the composer, this film also preserves an image of the opera that the composer sanctioned. It is wholly effective in its vivid imagery and authentic voice in conveying a sense of the opera as it was presented in its day and yet remains current through the idiom of film. With the cast essentially the same as the one that performed the work at its premiere, it is also an important historic document for this critical work. One of the important twentieth-century operas, Die Teufel von Loudon is a work that remains relevant on several counts.

Penderecki’s work is highly effective. His use of new sounds and modes of vocal expression fit his subject well and give it the voice it requires. The orchestral accompaniment not only supports the vocal lines of the libretto but also serve as a kind of commentary on it. Such is the case in the sixth scene of the second act, where the opening gesture in the orchestra sets the tone of the exchange that follows and the accompaniment reinforces the stage laughter that must not be missed at its end. In a sense, Penederecki’s conception of the orchestra resembles the one that Poulenc used a decade earlier in Dialogues des Carmélites, where the orchestra sometimes resembles a soundtrack for the action on stage. For both composers, the genre of opera provides a point of departure for their personal expression, and each created highly individual works. With Die Teufel von Loudon the resulting work is unique in its powerful depiction of charismatic hold Fr. Grandier had on the community of nuns who knew him, along with the ensuing madness and its consequences.

At the core of the drama is the exorcism effect on Sr. Jeanne, a horrific element that casts more guilt on the perpetrators and their audience than the character herself. In depicting Sr. Jeanne, Tatiana Troyanos created a convincing image, both physically and aurally. Her gaze is part of many scenes, and it embodies in various ways the mood that has been already expressed in the text and its accompanying music. The vocal idiom that Penderecki used in this work is effective in establishing the character of Sr. Jeanne and the others, each of whom is adept vocally. Troyanos stands out for her commandingly expressive performance, and various vocal and visual images of her almost define the opera. At the same time the tenor Andrzej Hiolski, who was involved with the premieres of Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion and Utrenja, created the role of Grandier as a multi-dimensional character. With the various faces of priest, seducer, victim, and ultimately martyr, the role of Grandier requires a dramatic intensity that almost challenges the musical demands of the role. Hiolski created the character with strength and sympathy, and this performance in the third act is virtuosic, with the image of Grandier at the stake remaining long after the film.

This film succeeds well in bringing opera into the medium of the cinema. Like a well-thought stage production, the capacity for visual imagery possible through film creates a level of presentation that is not in the score that serves the dramatic and musical content of Penderecki’s work. Liebermann’s cinematic vision enhances the presentation of Die Teufel von Loudon by not just recreating the work as it was staged, but using the medium to present the opera as film.

James L. Zychowicz

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