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Hysterical nuns, libidinous clerics, corrupt politicians and a public execution: Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun has everything you could possibly want in an opera, except perhaps dogs and kittens. For Keith Warner’s new production, now at home where the opera was written in Warsaw after an airing in Copenhagen, the composer has returned again to his twice-revised 1969 score, refining and reorchestrating original and new scenes. It is hard to think of a comparable 20th-century work that has been so often performed and yet so much maligned. On Wednesday, when the 80-year-old composer took applause on his home territory, Loudun’s evil spirits gave every appearance of being here to stay; attempted exorcisms of the past have clearly failed.
One of the chief criticisms levelled against the piece, that the music does not carry the drama, can certainly be dismissed on the strength of this production.
Penderecki’s revised score is graphically descriptive, with moments of both harsh brutality and unashamed lyricism, full of calculated effect and deftly crafted. Maybe the distance afforded by this century, where a new plurality may inform views of the last, is necessary in order fully to appreciate the piece for what it is: a ripping good yarn.
Warner’s production treats it as just that. His staging is literal, cinematic, witty and well-made. Boris Kudlicka’s sets are explicit, giving us everything from a bed and a confessional for Grandier’s ecclesiastical misdemeanours to cloisters for the nuns and a laboratory for Adam and Mannoury. On the podium, Lionel Friend finds the fine balance between precision and passion, and is rewarded with forceful orchestral playing and formidable singing, not least from the house choir. Not many opera choruses can manage microtones with such aplomb.
There are no weak links in the large cast. Tina Kiberg is compelling as overwrought nun Jeanne, despite being required to touch herself rather more than need be for us to grasp the implication of sexual frustration. Louis Otey goes beyond risk as Grandier, giving all to the point of self-destruction; Paul McNamara navigates Baron de Laubardemont’s stratospheric heights and growing sadism with apparent ease; Silja Schindler floats through the heights of the unfortunate Philippe’s lines, while Krzysztof Szmyt and Robert Gierlach make a hilarious double act as Adam and Mannoury.
When the blood-soaked Grandier is finally assumed in a tube of smoke and coloured light, we may have been cheated of the promised burning at the stake but we have been comprehensively entertained, somewhat revolted, and possibly even edified.