Review: ‘The Devils of Loudun’ Offers No Escape From Horror

MUNICH — There are certainly more joyous ways to begin an opera festival than with Krzysztof Penderecki’s harrowing, haunting “The Devils of Loudun.”

Yet there it was, opening the Bavarian State Opera’s annual summer festival here on Monday. Last year’s opener — Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” starring what local press described as the “dream pair” of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros — felt like a distant memory, its death drive and Schopenhauerian fever dreams quaint by comparison.

But that was a different time at this opera house. Then, it was run by Nikolaus Bachler, a beloved leader who stepped down after “Tristan,” and was succeeded by Serge Dorny, with the conductor Vladimir Jurowski as music director.

Their tenure is already taking shape, with signs everywhere of things to come. The company has given its first presentation of Shostakovich’s “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 taken up with the passion it requires to reach an audience today.

“In music history since ‘Orfeo,’” Dorny said in an interview last fall, “there have been about 50,000 to 60,000 titles, and something like 80 are being played. In order to keep it a lively art form — for opera to not be a mausoleum — we have to widen that.”

Enter, in that spirit, “The Devils of Loudun,” a 1969 work that is easier to appreciate than to love. Not for its musical language — it’s hardly the most avant-garde product of its time — but for its subject matter, an unsparing glimpse at humanity’s potential for fear and evil, unfolding over two relentless hours. It’s no surprise that on Monday, the Bavarian State Opera was not full; and the performance was not without a significant number of walkouts. (Judge for yourself: It’s streaming on the company’s website for the next month.)

Penderecki’s opera, though, is the kind of art that we avoid at our own peril.

I have adapted his libretto from Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name, a discursive nonfiction novel about the downfall of the 17th-century priest Urbain Grandier, a libertine who was accused of associating with the devil and bringing about mass demonic possession of Ursuline nuns. Amid exorcisms and Grandier’s execution at the stake is a study of transcendence, mob rule and political opportunism.

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 stage work, by Erich Fried, is the basis for Penderecki’s text, which bends the material even further toward allegory à la “The Crucible,” making a martyr of Grandier and subtly connecting his tragedy to the repression and conspiratorial violence of 20th-century totalitarianism, as in his country, Poland.

Penderecki, classical music’s poet of terror, tells his story with the material of horror films. (It’s no surprise that his scores by him have found their way onto the soundtracks of David Lynch movies and classics like “The Exorcist” and “The Shining.”) Alarming crescendos prime the nerves for panic; so does the occasional hazy portamento, jittery pizzicato or eerie sheen in the strings. He uses an enormous orchestra and chorus, but deploys them judiciously, guided less by dramatic momentum than by atmospheres both sacred and profane. This is an opera that nods to the tradition of motets, then makes a musical fart joke.

There is still much in the libretto that resonates. We have seen, worldwide, the destructive power of a mob, whether in person or online, and how fear can be weaponized for political convenience. Simon Stone, who directed “The Devils of Loudun,” said in a program book interview that his entry point for the opera was its vision of women’s bodies as objects of male anxiety.

The control of their bodies is a complicated thing in the opera. Jeanne, the prioress who fantasizes about Grandier, is rebuffed by him and later accuses him of consorting with the devil. She rallies her fellow nuns to feign mass hysteria, a performance that Stone treats as a form of protest. Whether by coincidence or quick responsiveness to the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last week, he has their undergarments and bare breasts decorated with agitprop language like “abort the patriarchy” and “bans off our bodies.”

Yet power ultimately rests with the men. Jeanne’s exorcism amounts to rape, including, at one point, being penetrated from behind by a hose. Her campaign of her against Grandier comes at a tragic cost, not least because it becomes a tool for others who were already plotting his destruction of her.

Loudon, in this production, is firmly in the present. It is also, on Bob Cousins’s rotating unit set — by now a tired trope in Stone’s productions — redolent of Tadao Ando’s powerfully spare Church of the Light in Japan, but warped by sacrilege into a kind of chilly austerity.

In an interview earlier this year Stone said that his priority with 20th-century and contemporary operas was to make them accessible to casual audiences. He achieves that in “Devils,” rarely deviating from the written word and accentuating, with a touch of gratuitousness, its horrors, graphic sensuality and, during Grandier’s execution, its agonizingly endless parade of lashings, here delivered with whips covered in blood-colored paint.

Stone’s hyper-realistic stagings demand singers who are also skilled as actors; and in Munich, he has a fearless, captivating ensemble. Missing on Monday was his Grandier, Wolfgang Koch, who had tested positive for the coronavirus on the day of the dress rehearsal. Instead, the role was split, with Jordan Shanahan singing from the pit and Robert Dölle miming and speaking onstage, both persuasively.

Leading the cast was the soprano Ausrine Stundyte as Jeanne, fluidly switching between breathless spoken text and long sung lines, and distorting her voice when possessed: pinching and crunching it, leaping to a higher register like the Wicked Witch of the West. Even from the balcony, you could see the complex blend of distress, pain and guile in her eyes.

The opera has so many principal and soloist roles, they could hardly be contained onstage during the curtain call. But there were standouts: Kevin Conners as Adam and Jochen Kupfer as Mannoury, darkly comical schemers who capitalize on Jeanne’s situation de ella; 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 about as a unit, whether in prayer or possession, in serene harmony or atonal cries. Stone ends the opera not with the image of Grandier at the stake but with Jeanne and her colleagues de ella in a chapel, seeming to have a sense of restored order but not peace as they are bathed in a climactic swirl of ghostly sounds.

That music, as prolonged as the opera’s dread, didn’t let up on Monday until Jurowski raised his hands in the pit. He was, after all, in control all night: the one who had brought this opera to the stage, and who had shepherded it with thorough commitment and expertise. His gestures of him at the podium were not just directional, but also characterful; no measure of the score came off as unconsidered.

If this is the enthusiasm that Jurowski plans to bring to all the Bavarian State Opera’s new repertory, then Munich has a thrilling, occasionally frightening future in store.

The Devils of Loudun

Through July 7 at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich; staatsoper.de.

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