The Bavarian State Opera’s Loudun Devils cause walkouts, sickness and enthusiastic applause – review
Sex-crazed nuns, in a hysteria they attribute to demonic possession, paint themselves with feminist slogans. This nod to Pussy Riot reminds us that Krzysztof Penderecki’s team Die Teufel de Loudun (The Devils of Loudun), written in 1969 to a libretto based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same name, deals with 17th-century themes but points a finger at repressive regimes today.
Simon Stone’s new production for the Bayerische Staatsoper sets the action in the here and now, though the sight of Munich police officiating in public torture and the burning of witches stretches credulity. A sort of dystopian near future, perhaps? Many countries restrict individual freedoms.
Munich reverted to Penderecki’s original score, avoiding its revisions two decades later. The orchestration is raw and dripping with horror. Electric guitar, clusters of sounds, sepulchral voices from beyond – Penderecki’s music is literalist and shrill, a horror movie with a never-ending final torture scene.
Set designer Bob Cousins has constructed a gigantic concrete edifice – an open stairwell for officials to ascend and descend, an illuminated niche as a chapel or love nest, a cavernous hall, a balcony; the whole turns, revealing a dazzling multiplicity of facets. Mel Page’s costumes today paint in dark pastel shades, with priests and nuns dressed in . . . well, priests and nuns. Stone’s cinematic realism makes for very uncomfortable viewing; significant numbers of the opening night audience fell ill, keeping busy house doctors busy, while others simply left.
Those who remained greeted Stone’s production with enthusiastic applause. Despite all the jarring incongruities of its update, despite all the agonizing boredom of the endless death scene, it remains a powerful and unsettling evening.
Much of the credit goes to Vladimir Jurowski, who conducts this score as if it were a Mozart opera he had performed a thousand times, with love, passion and fanatical attention to detail; the orchestra is energized and the singers are visibly grateful for the support.
Covid plagued opening night; Wolfgang Koch, who should have sung the key role of Father Grandier, had tested positive just before the dress rehearsal. The house took the emergency decision to give the role to an actor from the Munich Kammerspiele, Robert Dölle, while Jordan Shanahan sang the role from the orchestra pit. Grandier’s spoken lines – of which there are many – fell on Dölle. Given the short notice, both men took the game in impressive fashion, and the precarious nature of that solution sent a chill of impending doom into the evening. In the end, all that went wrong was that a number of cast members slipped during the encores on pools of stage blood left over from Grandier’s final flogging.
As Jeanne, the troubled prioress, Aušrine Stundyte gives a formidably fearless performance. But all the actors are superb, from the stratospheric coloratura of Danae Kontora as Philippe to the playful double act of Kevin Connors and Jochen Kupfer as town actors Adam and Mannoury. The chorus, too, navigates Penderecki’s gnarled score with absolute confidence.
Altogether the new Munich Teufel is a horrific experience that will leave you feeling upset and a little uneasy. You can quibble over a number of director decisions, but not the outcome.
As of July 7, then back in February 2023, staatsoper.de