Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 – ) composed his first opera,
“The Devils of Loudun,” during 1968 and 1969. Musically, it
utilizes the style that Penderecki favored in the 1960’s, i.e.,
tone clusters and “clouds” of sonorities, sometimes to the
exclusion of specifically notated pitches, extreme chromaticism,
etc. In other words, this was a decidedly more “avant-garde”
approach than what he has tended to favor in his more
recent music.

I must say that this approach turns out to be quite effective
in this work, involving subjects such as erotic-sexual neuroses
and religious obsessions. There are exorcisms, orgies and
even the administration of an enema, as a means of purging
evil spirits. This story deals with Jeanne, Prioress of the Ursuline
Convent of Loudun in France, circa 1634. Due to her frustrated
passions and delusions, as well as those of her fellow nuns,
she is largely responsible for the burning of Father Grandier
at the stake.

Penderecki pared this legend down to its essentials, fashioning
a libretto which he combined with his effective use of the
orchestra and chorus, thereby facilitating this intense one hour,
45-minute drama.

I found his instrumentation to be particularly interesting, as
it calls for four saxophones, organ, bass guitar, piano,
harmonium, six horns, and contrabass clarinet, among other
instruments. With this configuration, Penderecki was able to
create the mood and atmosphere befitting this unusual
subject matter. The results, as heard in this magnificent
recording, speak for themselves. The way he uses the chorus,
singing in Latin much of the time, is every bit as important as
his use of the orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos (1938-1993) sang the role of
Jeanne with total commitment, and the rest of this large cast,
including Hans Sotin, Bernard Ladysz, Andrzej Hiolski, and
Helmut Melchert sound wonderful. In keeping with the
Expressionistic nature of this opera, the text is spoken and sung.

This is a world-premiere recording, and the performers are
mostly the same as those used during the actual world-premiere
performance held at and commissioned by the Hamburg State
Opera. Therefore, this recording can lay claim to a certain
historical “authenticity.” To top it off, Penderecki’s score was
well served by the superb engineering, allowing the
performance to be experienced with transparency and clarity.
Although Marek Janowski did not conduct the world premiere
staging, he does a fine job of leading these forces here.

This is a great and important recording of a work which is
not for the faint of heart. This two-CD set was reissued in 1996,
and is accompanied with two booklets, the first of which
features an essay, synopsis and photos from the premiere,
and a second one, consisting of a German-English libretto.
I highly recommend this recording.