PENDERECKI: The Devils of Loudun
Recently this site mentioned the first two issues in this exciting new Ring cycle from Valencia (REVIEW). Now we have the final two operas in this "Star Wars" production "for the 21st Century." Overall, it is tremendously exciting in many ways, a feast for the eyes, although at some crucial points this modern approach disappoints. The dragon in Siegfried, supposed to be terrifying, is a simple large clumsy partitioned square wooden tube manipulated by a team of attendants. What a missed opportunity for something really spectacular! During the first part of the final scene, Siegfried's journey to the site of Brünnhilde's rock is exciting indeed, but when he finds her, the stage is remarkably bland. Only towards the end of the love duet do the producers use remarkable imaging techniques they have at their disposal, although I would have chosen something other than myriad large swirling black ink blots. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried wears a modern suit after his Rhine journey, and Gutrune looks like a tart from a Western bar scene. Most of the characters have their names imprinted on their costumes, and at the conclusion of the Immolation Scene the producers' name appears in big print—totally inappropriate and unnecessary.
However, don't miss this Ring. There are flaws, but overall it is a brilliant concept, far removed from most recent modern productions of Wagner by ill-advised directors who insult their audiences. If you have the proper equipment, get the Blu-Ray versions, as these offer 7.1 Master Audio sound, which is of demonstration quality; the regular DVD has 5.1 surround sound. Each opera includes a bonus disk discussing how the opera was produced.
The Devils of Loudun, Krysztof Penderecki's first opera, was premiered at the Hamburg State Opera June 20, 1969. Commissioned by Rolf Liebermann, general manager of the opera company, it retells the story of the torture and execution of the Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, who was a victim of both political intrigue and the unrequited sensual infatuation of the nun Jeanne, who accuses him of witchcraft. The opera was dedicated to Henryk Czyz, who conducted the premiere. The composer continued to make changes even during rehearsals and the premiere was not a success, which is easy to understand as Penderecki's music is challenging, but powerful captures the tragic plot. Fortunately, a few weeks after the premiere the Hamburg State Opera took the production into the studio with a cast almost identical to that of opening night, although the score was somewhat altered from the original. Marek Janowski, then at the beginning of his distinguished career, conducted. A very young Tatiana Troyanos gives a powerful performance as the unstable Jeanne, Prioress of the Urseline Convent, and Andrezej Hiolskil is perfect as the doomed priest. Another young singer who went on to great fame is bass-baritone Hans Sotin, who sings the role of Father Rangier. This black and white TV production has some effects you would not see in an opera house, but it works well, and the power of this remarkable score comes over. The mono sound is well-balanced, and there are complete program notes and a detailed synopsis. This is a quality historic issue for the discerning opera fan.
R.E.B. (February 2010)