Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun opens the Opera Festival at the Bayerisches Staatsoper

GermanyGermany Penderecki, Die Teufel von Loudun: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra des Bayerisches Staatsoper / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 29.6.2022. (ALL)

Simon Stone’s Munich production of Die Teufel von Loudun (c) Wilfried Hösl

Director – Simon Stone
Costumes – Mel Page
Settings – Bob Cousin
Lightning – Nick Schlieper  Dramaturgy- Malte Krasting

Père Grandier – Jordan Shanahan and Robert Dölle
Jeanne – Aušrine Stundyte
Claire – Ursula Hesse von den Steinen
Gabrielle – Nadezhda Gulitskaya
Louisa – Lindsay Ammann
Philippe – Danae Kontora
Ninon – Nadezhda Karyazina
Père Barré – Martin Winkler
Baron de Laubardemont  – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Père Rangier – Andrew Harris
Père Mignon – Ulrich Ress
Adam – Kevin Conners
Mannoury – Jochen Kupfer
d’Armagnac – Thiemo Strutzenberger
de Cerisay – Barbara Horvath
Prince Henri de Condé – Sean Michael Plumb
Père Ambrose – Martin Snell
Bontemps – Christian Rieger
Ursulines – Camilla Saba Davies, Elisa de Toffol, Tina Drole, Albina Gitman, Laura Hilden, Ulrike Malotta, Anna Avdalyan, Helene Böhme, Antje Lohse, Rebecca Suta, Mechtild Söffler, Mengting Wu

This year Munich Opera Festival started with a new production of Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun in presence of the composer’s widow.

Wolfgang Koch should have sung the key role of Father Grandier but the devils of opera played us a trick and he tested positive for Covid-19 a few days before the premiere. He was replaced by two artists: Jordan Shanahan sang the part from the pit and Robert Dölle acted the role on stage. Both were warmly applauded by the audience when Serge Dorny arrived on stage to explain the situation.

In his fascinating memoires, Rolf Liebermann spoke about many of the challenges of this work and in particular on getting the composer to cut the ad libitum parts. The work indeed presents huge dramatic and technical challenges. The libretto is inspired from Aldous Huxley’s book which tells the harrowing story of the exorcism of hysterical nuns which led to a political opponent of Cardinal Richelieu to be accused, tortured and burned alive. The libretto and music are just uncompromising and during the performance, a few spectators fainted.

The work of all artists involved was of the highest order and spoke volumes on how much they believed in the piece. As it is the case with many of Simon Stone’s staging’s, the action was set in our time. (The slogan ‘my body, my choice’ was written on of the gown of one of the nuns. It may have been just coincidence, but this striking detail was only a few days after the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade!) There was on the stage a central rotating cube which allowed for singers to come in and out as required by the complex story. This allowed for strong Personenregie from all but also clarity, fluidity of action and care for the singers to be heard well by the audience. This was a compelling conception.

Both protagonists that shared the role of Father Grandier proved to be very convincing. Jordan Shanahan has strong projection and clear diction whereas Robert Dölle brought acting skills to complement. Aušrine Stundyte (Jeanne) was intense and the sound effects of the scene of possession were effective and chilling. As always in Munich, secondary roles were cast with strength and care. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Kevin Conners, Jochen Kupfer, Martin Winkler, Sean-Michael Plumb and Ulrich Ress were notable contributions, with the young Greek Soprano Danae Kontora (Philippe) displaying some wonderful high notes. Vladimir Jurowski in the pit showed authority and care for the singers in a really strong overall performance done by all with talent, dedication and artistic integrity.

But may I ask if the work is that strong? It is a hybrid piece, half spoken theatre and half sung with little sense of how to write for the voice. Harmonics and orchestral effects are very daring but there is no feeling of musical line. The libretto speaks of a terrible story but then opera should also be about psychology and character development and there was little to none of it. We know of modern works which use violence as a key element of the piece. Berg’s Wozzeck or Zimmerman’s (outstanding) Die Soldaten are a far more convincing mix of music, story and drama.

So, congratulations to the artists for such outstanding work and also for the Bayerisches Staatsoper to take the risk of presenting unknown works but was this work worthy of such efforts?

Readers can see the performance as well as hear the artists while it remains on the Munich opera house’s Staatsoper.TV until the end of July (click here).

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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