Penderecki Devils


Adam Mickiewicz Institute and present Penderecki 's Garden.


The two most famous operas by Penderecki offer a dazzling contrast in style and subject. Where the 'Devils of Loudun' premiered in 1969, translates Aldous Huxley's history of religious possession and persecution in music of unsettling sensuality and brutality, the opera Buffer 'Ubu Rex', premiered in 1991, wraps a satire on corruption in tart and tangy colorature marches and choruses.


I'm music journalist Charlotte Gardner, and in this podcast I examine where the operas sit in the wider European 20th century operatic tradition and whether both works could be termed Zeitoper.


That was Johnny Spield Off or Johnny strikes up, a work composed in 1927 by Ernst Krennick, that was a runaway international sensation after its Leipzig premiere and has since come to epitomise a genre generally seen as confined to a very specific time and a very specific place. Zeitoper or opera of the time. The time was the mid 1920s. The place was Weimar Germany, and the style was determinedly modern and experimental. On the one hand, it was opera, clearly classical, probably best described as post-expressionist in style.


Yet it was also shot through with references to popular music, especially dance and jazz. In fact, it was determinedly contemporary, from its characters and situations to the modern technology woven into its storylines. For instance, Johnny Spiel Alf features an onstage car chase. Then there was the tone. Zeitoper plots also tended to be comic or satiric, with their prevailing mood tending to be light, decadent, and accessible.


All in all, the overall feel was of an opera, and a musical rolled into one that stretched the boundaries of what could be defined as opera. So with that in your heads, let's now move forward in time to the mid 1960s, and when Penderecki had just hit the classical mainstream thanks to his own runaway international success.


His 'St. Luke Passion'. This had premiered in 1066 in West Germany's Münster Cathedral, simultaneously marking the cathedral's 700th anniversary and a Millennium of Christianity in Penderecki's home country of Poland. It in turn, had come off the back of another international success, all be it not a mainstream one.


The awardwinning sonaristically experimental avantgarde 'Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima' of 1960.


In short, everybody knew about Penderecki. Everybody wanted him, and when each of those works was in its own way, an edge of the seat dramatic toward a force, it was only a matter of time before an opera was commissioned. It arrived swiftly, too, from Ralph Lieberman at the Hamburg Staatsoper, and the subject that Penderecki then proposed and which Lieberman accepted was one which had Penderecki's name practically written all over it. It was such a perfect match, for both his social and political conscience and for his musical style.


An adaptation of oldest Huxley's documentary novel of 1952 'The Devils of Loudun', which in turn had inspired further adaptations, such as a novella which had become a famous 1961 horror film, 'Mother Joan of the Angels' and the same year, a theatre play by John Whiting.


Huxley's novel dealt with the famous 17th century case of mass devil possessions in the French town of Loudun near Poitiers that in its day had fascinated the whole of Europe. The story went that in 1632 the head of an Ursuline convent, Prioris Jeanne des Anges, together with a junior nun, had had night time visions of a man of the cloth resembling the priest of their nearby church, Urbain Grandier. A young, vain, handsome and talented character who made sport out of seducing his prettiest young female parishioners. Soon many of the sisters of the convent were caught up in episodes of mass hysteria.


Fits of uncontrollable laughter, convulsions, irrational behaviour, and blasphemous shouts. The solution presented by the town's religious authorities was mass exorcisms. And soon these became major public events, drawing crowds from miles around.


But they also needed a culprit. And before Grandier was accused and found guilty of witchcraft, with the evidence produced against him, including a document which, allegedly was his blood-signed pact with the devil. Grandier vociferously denied the charge while freely confessing to his seductions of the towns women folk. But the court found him guilty nevertheless. And in 1634, following horrific torture, which included the breaking of both his legs, he was paraded through the streets and burned at the stake. So far so darkly occultish and sensational. However, Grandier asserted to the end that he had never even met Prioris Jeanne.


In fact, more than that, he had even turned down her invitation to be Father Confessor at her convent, and the very first time they met does appear to have been as he was carried to the stake for his execution. What he had done, though, was managed through his vanity and eloquence to get on the wrong side of the most powerful man in France beyond the King, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu had in 1631 began to build a brand new town about 12 miles away from Loudun, named after himself, and the combination of Loudun's fortress and its large hugueanots population was making him nervous.


His fear was that the hugueanots  could take control of this fortress and rise up against him. Consequently, as his town gradually rose up, he wanted the Loudun fortress dismantled, something the town's Mayor opposed, and Grandier had publicly taken the mayor's side. Out of the fact that Grandier's philandering had made him disliked and envied by the town's men folk and considered an embarrassment to the Catholic Church by itself a clergy and when the nun started having fantasies and hysteria, Richelieu's men had only too many willing helpers willing to inflate nuns hysterical erotic fantasies into demonic possessions that could serve their own political purposes. And they did indeed engineer mass madness thanks to exorcism methods that amounted to physical torture. So, while the counterargument was made in court that these manifestations were simply sexual hysteria, it did not hit receptive unbiased ears. In fact, while the ecclesiastical doctrine of the time was the devil cannot be believed even when he tells the truth, the court actually overturned this law to insist and said that the devil constrained, i.e. Under exorcism, is bound to tell the truth. And in doing so made it actually illegal not to believe the testimony of someone under exorcism. The result being that tortured nuns suddenly moved from being unreliable witnesses to witnesses whose statements had to be believed by rule of ecclesiastical law. So diabolical, possession, mass erotic hysteria, exorcism, torture, politics, social and religious intolerance, injustice, persecution all in a highly Catholic monastic setting. Fertile ground, indeed, for a devoutly Catholic composer famed both for the impression of cataclysmic horror he had created in experimental avantgarde works such as Threnody and for weaving that catastrophic style into ancient Church music styles with the St. Luke Passion. Also a composer becoming known for addressing issues of politics and injustice. However, that wasn't all because as all this Huxley set to work on his book in the late 1940s, gathering together all the contemporary accounts, what struck him forcefully were the parallels between the Catholic Inquisition of past centuries and his own immediate mid 20th century context of politically inspired witch hunts. From Jews under Hitler to capitalists under Stalin and Communists in the United States. And inevitably, this aspect of Huxley's book fascinated Penderecki and set him off on his own research, reading further literature on the case, on the Inquisition and in the process, discovering, as he put it: "Things he had no previous knowledge about on the actions of the Catholic Church, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries."


Speaking in 2013, he explained: "I grew up in a very Catholic family, in a small city in South East Poland where criticism against the Church didn't exist at all. It was a dogma, and after this book actually, which opened my eyes, I changed. And living in very Catholic Poland, I wanted to write the piece, telling the truth."


The resultant opera was the Penderecki's own libretto and very much about telling the truth. For starters, his concern for historical accuracy saw him remove a character that John Whiting had created for dramatic purposes. His action also placed less emphasis on it being a historical event in inverted commas.  And more on turning it into a universally applicable statement on fanaticism and intolerance. Indeed, he topped his score with the words: "The Devil cannot be believed, even when he tells the truth."


In practical terms, this meant reducing the number of characters and subplots. Also more emphasis on Grandier, turning down the confessor post at the Convent. And the possibility that Prioris Jeanne had sexual fantasies.


The opera opens with her engaged in an erotic vision, telling Grandier: "My innocence is yours."


Later, when Penderecki revised the opera for a 2013 production marking his 80th birthday, producing the orchestral forces and expanding the number of scenes, one key additional scene was the layering of a spoken Privy Council meeting between the King and Richelieu in which Grandier is pronounced guilty over the top of the dramatic public exorcism  concluding Act Two.


Penderecki's libretto was also striking for the way that he didn't shy away from the story's gruesome elements. Whitening's play doesn't stage the actual burning. Instead, his characters merely talk about it.


Penderecki does stage it. Likewise, he doesn't hold back on the torture element, either the gynaecological tortures inflicted upon the nuns or the brutal injuries meted out on Grandier. As for the music, it's very recognisably from the composer of the 'St. Luke Passion', with its chord clusters, microtones sharp dramatic contrasts, intense expression, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and Gregorian chant. It's also the same blend of dramatic pull and release, raucous action and quieter contemplation.


His use of the orchestra, though, is different with the 'St. Luke Passion' he may have been sparing with his toothy orchestral moments in order for the ones that he gave to have maximum impact. But with 'Devils' he largely assues dense, complex coral and orchestral textures altogether. With a libretto composed of multiple short scenes, nimbleness was the operative word. So instruments are predominantly used in small groups so as to allow for rapid changes of colour. In short, it's an operatic score from a master creator of incidental music, writing at complete service to the dramatic action and flow.


This didn't mean that this was mere incidental music, though. Penderecki knew how to still create musical impact, meaning that key scenes, such as the aforementioned exorcism at the end of Act Two are as intensely dramatic as you could hope for.


Then, although his music hasn't gone into individual character painting, it does brilliantly set atmospheric scenes. Take the Church and convent scenes with their organ pedals and monotone chanting.


It also cleverly slips in its own subtext on the action. Mental sickness and spiritual hysteria, for instance, are portrayed with wide, angular leaps. So when the young girl, Philippe, a high lyric soprano, declares her love to Grandier, the leaps her vocal line makes over the course of even a single syllable tell you plainly that there's nothing sane or grounded about these feelings of hers. That this is a classic allconsuming schoolgirl crush.


All the first appearance in Act Two of the chemists and surgeons standing in the street discussing Grandier's successful womanising, we may be meeting them for the first time, but the barely their accompaniment, dominated by menacing bass guitar twangs, leaves us in no doubt as to the unsavoryness of their characters.


Later, when the nuns emit male devil voices, the music is likewise suggesting duplicity and linking them to the political forces at work beyond the convent's walls. Or that's when we're invited to draw comparisons between Act Two's sextet in the pharmacy, when Grandier's enemies assemble in frustrated panic because the disbelieving bishop has banned any further exorcisms. And the following nuns quartet as the sisters wonder why they're no longer being exercised. Inevitably from the composer known for his exploring the sonic capabilities of the human voice to its limits, his score uses advanced vocal techniques to brilliant dramatic effect, with its mix of singing, chanting, heightened speech and vocal glissandi.


Interviewed in 1974 for Gramophone magazine, the Hamburg Productions, [...] soprano Tatiana Troyanos's related the unusual care with which the production of 'The Devils of Loudun' needs to be placed in a singer's schedule in order for their voice to cope. They'd say: 'Do a rosen cavalier two nights after the Devils', she remembered, and I'd say, 'You're crazy. That's impossible'. That sort of part is tricky enough if your technique is absolutely solid, but if it's not, it could actually be dangerous. Which brings us to that premiere. Scoring Penderecki's first ever opera had been a major coup for Hamburg Opera, and it wasn't letting that go to waste.


The big night was 20 June 1969, timed to coincide not only with the International Society for Contemporary Music's 43rd World Festival, but to sit at the festival's climax, meaning a theatre chock full of international journalists and music industry figures was guaranteed. The conductor, meanwhile, was the same conductor who had presented the 'St. Luke Passion' to the world three years previously in Münster - Henrik Czyż. In the event, though the biggest shock of the night was that it wasn't a critical success. The production itself had been created by theatre director Konrad Swinarski, and the look he had gone for was a highly traditional grand opera style set. A lavishly detailed period creation that was beautiful to look at, but very much sending the message that this was a historical reenactment rather than a story with a universal message.


He'd also baulked at going all the way with burning at the stake and hidden it from view. What's more, the choruses were taped in advance and played out to onstage miming. As Penderecki's biographer Wolfram Schwinger put it:  'While the conducting from Czyż was highly sensitive, this crowd of music professionals was bored and disappointed. It was not what they had expected at this festival from Christoph Penderecki'.  [...] described it as 'a poor sounding piece'. Heinz Klaus Metzker on North German radio described it as 'musical diarrhoea'.


Der Spiegel said 'it was accompaniment music to a play whose protagonists just happened to sing'. Thankfully, though, the opera didn't have to wait long to get a second chance, because just two nights later in Stuttgart, it was receiving a second premiere via an entirely different production. This one from seasoned opera director Günther Rennert and conducted by János Kulka. And not only were the critics who had been at the Hamburg production also booked in for the Stuttgart one, but this Stuttgart production proceeded to reveal all the qualities that the Hamburg performance had quashed.


With the visuals historical realism was replaced with something not simply more strikingly abstract, but something which took the libretto's graphic nature to heart.


For instance, the scene when Grandier and one of his conquests, Wido Nino, have a rendezvous in the bath tub was this time genuinely naked. Likewise, frenzied nuns, romped topless, and Grandier's death was played out in full view. So even though the Stuttgart singers were theoretically less fine voiced than their Hamburg rivals, the energy they brought to this less realistic but more believable highimpact staging and the fact that it was all sung live did the job. To return to Wolfram Schwinger, who also attended that second performance, he wrote afterwards: 'The production did not so much narrate an exhibit as hurled a spectator into the drama of the events, and suddenly the music was no longer a background accompaniment but a component of the action sharply accentuating it. Not only by evoking eminently Catholic atmosphere, but above all, in tough characterization or creating distance with a dry, macabre humour. That was quite new in Penderecki's music - piercing through to the truth or falsehood of the situations. This time the critics loved it. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described Penderecki 's elastically, restrained score.


Music journalist Ernest Gunter Engelhard lauded him for his clever balancing of erotic mystery and macabre religious satire, which resulted in psychodrama counterpointed with music. He exclaimed: 'The world of music has not lost Penderecki, but the theatre has won him.'


By September 1969, they were already shooting a film version of it. In Hamburg with the Hamburg soloists but now produced by Jurgen Hess and conducted by Marek Janowski. Soon it was being staged all over Europe and in the United States.


There was one group of people who were not amused, though.  The Catholic Church. Among the German voices of dissent was the Bishop of Stuttgart, who wrote an angry letter to the press. The Polish Church was equally up in arms. And when the opera was to be staged in Rome, the Vatican asked that it be cancelled. But as ever, with Penderecki - telling the truth won out over towing the political line, and the performance went ahead. Speaking years later, just before the premiere of his 2013 revision, he commented: 'I started to have a problem with the Church, of course, being very Catholic, but trying to tell the truth.'


Each of the following two decades brought a further contribution to the operatic repertory. First in 1978 came 'Paradise Lost', based on Milton's epic poem about the war for Heaven and Man's fall. Then in 1986 came the 'Black Mask' a 17th century tale as dark as devils and likewise portraying the inquisition's dark tricks. In 1999, though, came a completely new departure. Or a new departure at face value, at least 'Ubu Rex' - Penderecki's first and only comic opera, and one he actually categorised using the 18th century term 'opera buffer.'


The 18th century parallels didn't stop there either because there was also a strong parallel with possibly the most famous opera buffer of them all.


Yes, Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'. This one had been based on the infamous 1778 French satirical play of the same name by Pierre Beaumarchais, and Penderecki with his opera equally drew on a satirical French play. This one  written in 1896 by Alfred Jarry 'Ubu Roi'.  While the 'Marriage of Figaro' satirises aristocratic privilege, Jarry's play 'Ubu Roi' or 'King Ubu', is a warning on the corrupting and the absurdist effects of absolute power. Taking a swing at literary tradition as it goes. Ubu is a vulgar, stupid general who, pressed by his ambitious wife, organises a military coup, kills his good King Wensleslas and takes the throne for himself. In other words, it's Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' and those who know their Shakespeare will also be spotting further echoes of his works, both through those initial bloody struggles and over Ubu's ensuing descent into full-on dictatorship. As gradually he kills off anyone he perceives as a threat, including his friends and inflicting crippling taxes on his people. This wasn't the only way in which stylistically Jarry's place stood out in its 19th century time, either because it could also be seen as one of theater's very first avantgarde works.


Jarry makes his satirical point through the very opposite of realism.


His plot's action isn't just chaotic and comedic, but also absurdist. His characters are more carricatures than real human beings. He's also gone for shock tactics with his script featuring frequent obscenities. And actually it was this aspect that its first audience in 1896 couldn't handle. The first word delivered on stage by Ubu is 'Mer', a variation on the expletive 'mad', and the result beyond 15 minutes of shouts and whistles, was the play being mothballed for decades.


The play also has one further interesting aspect because, while Penderecki may have labelled his opera version an opera buffer - 18th century opera buffers generally have happy endings with a moral message, whereas Jarry's play finishes rather more darkly. The murdered king's son returns and conquers, having forged an alliance with his country's former enemies, the Russians. Ubu and his wife manage to flee, and the play ends with them sailing away in search of whichever country is  'worthy enough to accept us.' In other words, there's a definite sting in its tail.


The play wasn't destined to remain mothful forever, though. While 19th century Paris may not have been ready for 'Ubu Roi' as the 20th century got going and audiences became familiar with the avantgarde, surrealism and Dadaism, and almost simultaneously - fascism popped up. Ubu was suddenly no longer offputtingly shocking, but instead like an uncannily prophetic political allegory.


For Poles, meanwhile, the play had another standout feature. Its subtitle was 'the Poles' because it was set in an imaginary Poland or  'nowhere' as Jarry  also described it. Not because he had it in for Poland, but because at that moment in time, Poland as a single autonomous nation didn't exist. It was instead a country struggling to retain national identity with its lands divided between the Russians, Austrians, and Germans. So Poland was simply a convenient name. And perhaps surprisingly, the Poles themselves didn't take it as an insult either.


In fact, they embraced it as a joke. French copies founded into the country in the 1920s and in 1936 it was translated into Polish. After the Second World War, though the new Polish Communist regime viewed it with less of a sense of humour, and it was banned as antipoland satire. Back to Penderecki, though, and his own first contact with the play inevitably therefore came from abroad when, in 1964 he was invited to write the incidental music to a production by Stockholm Puppet Theatre. Inevitably, its combination of political satire, avantgarde shock, and no doubt the sheer joy of its colourful absurdist chaos captivated him instantly.


And of course, for him, the operas being set in Poland was pertinent, indeed. Regardless of Jarry's intentions, the result was that even as he was planning 'Devils of Loudun', he was also mooting Ubu as an idea. Again with him penning the libretto, this time in collaboration with Jerzy Jarocki.


Clearly, though, Penderecki was not going to find a home for it in Poland anytime soon. And while he did think about staging Ubu with Günther Rennert, director of Stuttgart's 'Devils'. Over the ensuing decades, his plans for it would be repeatedly thwarted or put off. Down to a combination of political pressure, by Polish authorities determined that this antipoland work shouldn't be staged by the country's most prominent composer and also by political events themselves, such as the Declaration of Martial Law in 1981, which drew Penderecki instead to the score of his 'Polish Requiem.'


Finally, though, in 1990, the year after Poland's Communist government fell at the suggestion of Bavarian State Opera's Intendant August Everding, Penderecki and Jarocki pulled together all their initial sketches and set to work on what would become a two Act German language opera, down from Jarry;s five acts 'Ubu Rex'. The following year it opened at the Munich Opera Festival, directed by Everding, with Robert Tear in the title role and Michael Border directing.


Penderecki was 57, and while it had no doubt been frustrating to have spent almost three decades with his attempts to stage this opera being thwarted, ultimately, he found that he appreciated having had it denied to him until that moment. He commented:  'To write a comic opera, one has to not only have experienced a lot, but also to be able to look at these experiences with perspective. One must be able to laugh at oneself, something that cannot be done at the age of 30.'


Clearly, Penderecki did have a blast with it, too. The critic and writer Philip Kennicott has written of Penderecki's operas in general, that 'they're studies in relentless multivalent, darkly absurd and even violent energies. An aesthetic that connects him to the Polish modernist literary tradition. His characters, though clearly defined, don't so much enact plots as they are unleashed for a confined period of pure mayhem.' And to say this holds true for 'Ubu Rex' is something of an understatement.


The opera buffer title gave Penderecki the green light to escape the weight of expectation over progressive composition or to produce something with obvious ties to anything else in his output and what he came up with did for his own heritage what Jarry's play had done to pass literary work. Drawing on the culture of the day, while also impersonating composers and idioms identifiable from the operatic tradition.


In vocal terms perhaps the greatest parallels of the Verdi's 'Falstaff'- a work Penderecki described as 'a masterpiece of comic opera.'


You'll hear Penderecki using the same sorts of comic focal devices as Verdi, such as parlando, along with a similar caricature approach, as well as his own various modern extended techniques.


Harmonically as you'll have tweaked - it's, everything. An accessible sounding mix of tonal, atonal and postexpressionist chromaticism. In formal terms - likewise, Penderecki is stepping into the past, giving us traditional ensembles, and arias in a far more recognisable way than we heard in 'Devils.'


He's also thought cleverly about which emulations will provoke which connotations. Take the Prokofiev heavy feel to much of his military sounding music, which in fact is extensive enough for a separate brass suite to have been created out of it later.


His score also references his own stylistic predilections from the avantgarde to the Eastern Orthodox music. And as ever, with Penderecki, there are all sorts of contrapuntal complexities, which here are, of course, a brilliant match for the plot's teeming action. He's also broken the operatic mould at points, for instance, with the jazz and pop fragments he's thrown in.


Also, more subtly, the orchestral intermeezzo preceding the Russian forces attack on Ubu is an aggressive scherzo.  When the most famous operatic intermezzo of all must be the serene interlude [...] delivers in 'Cavalieria Rusticana' just before its own action turns bloody.


Talking of Russia - what of political statements? This libretto telling of Poland under the control of a dictator had been conceived under Poland's years of Soviet-controlled communism. Now that that was no longer the Polish plight, had the concept's original political and social teeth been knocked out?


Well, the answer, of course, was no. For starters, the Communists weren't getting away with things lightly simply because they had now got out of Poland. The Russian Tsar is now referred to as Communista. Plus Penderecki's pain and outrage at past Polish struggles is also audible. Take the highly dissonant music, which follows the futile slaughter of scores of Poles after Act Two's battle.


Penderecki is even handed, though, meaning that capitalism also gets it in the neck. Ubu is in favour of the free market economy. What's more, another chief reference point for the opera's characters is Kurt Weill's 'Threepenny opera', which was a socialist critique on capitalism. Essentially, Penderecki is saying: 'Don't think you can relax just because you don't have a Communist government. Despots come in all shapes and sizes.'


As for how 'Ubu Rex' was received, the answer is with enthusiasm and surprise. Reporting on the Munich premiere, The New York Times described it as 'an exuberantly, vulgar vision of a world taken over by the lowest form of bourgeois avarice and greed.' Some critics thought that there was too much musical quotation, but others relished the opera [foreign language 00:39:08]  joie de vivre and especially when all this brashly, vulgar, fun and froth was coming from the composer of the 'Polish Requiem and the 'St. Luke Passion'. It wasn't just very different to the rest of Penderecki's operatic output either.


It also represented a distinct contrast to much of the 20th century's other high profile new operas, even the adventurously, boundary breaking ones. Take Philip Glasses'  'Einstein on the beach' of 1976, with its abstract, nonnarrative action and its replacement of a Symphony Orchestra with synthesisers, woodwinds and voices.


Or to go avantgarde - there's  Ligeti's -  is it an opera opera? 'Le Grande Macabre' of 1978, developed also in collaboration with Stockholm Puppet Theatre as it happens. Another noisy, absurdist plot underpinned by a musically eclectic feast of borrowings and pastichese, ranging from Monteverdi to Verdi.


Or Stockhausen's 'Donnerstag aus Licht' cycle from the same period - surreal symbolist deep.


But there's nothing comic about 'Einstein on the beach'. 'Donnerstag aus Licht' is hardly a comedy, and while 'Le Grande Macabre' is full of humour, its world is so zanelly absurd that its connections to real life are very abstract. There is another 20th century opera Buffer candidate - Elizabeth McConkey's sparkling one act opera of 1957 - 'The Sofa" is exactly that.


But there's no satire, serious moral lesson or basis in reality to its tale of a man who gets turned into a sofa by his angry grandmother. It's obvious answer to a fine prosecco, basically. Back to 'Ubu Rex', though, and whether for its originality or its surprise factor, its success continued.


November 1993 saw its Polish premieres in Łódź and Kraków. The year 2003 saw a Warsaw production taken to London and recorded. The opera, then formed part of Penderecki's 80th birthday celebrations in 2013 in Gdańsk, [...].  Beyond being a success, though, it is interesting to dwell just a bit on what 'Ubu Rex' really is. Yes, Penderecki termed it 'an opera buffer', and its intertextual approach means it shares plenty of opera buffer's characteristics and also, incidentally the feel, at least of another 18th century opera type, the pasticcio where arias were plucked from their original operas to become a sort of multicomposer musical patchwork fitted to a brand new story.


But is an opera buffer whose moral ending isn't a happy one still an opera buffer? Well, perhaps, yes. Given that what Penderecki effectively set out to do with 'Ubu Rex' was to redefine what the term 'opera buffer' can mean in modern times. - Which brings us back to 'Zeitoper' - that determinedly contemporary comic satiric genre with its light tone, sense of decadence, references to popular music, unusual degree of accessibility, and its desire to push the boundaries of what could be defined as opera. Suddenly, it sounded as though 'Ubu Rex' could be a highly credible late 20th century candidate in a way that actually nothing else had been really since that opera's brief moment in 'The Sun'.


Now, what about 'Devils of Loudun'?


Another opera with a cautionary contemporary message about corruption, one that works best when treated as a contemporary subject rather than a historical reenactment, one that shocks in its own way, but no... As much as it would be an amusing intellectual exercise to make the case for 'Devils' as 'Zeitoper', there is such a thing as stretching a hypothesis to breaking point. 'Devils' is one of the 20th century's most significant and powerful operatic creations. Let's leave it at that, it is enough. Still, one out of two for a singingly popular and relevant genre generally viewed as having become extinct by 1930.


That's not bad going.


This episode of Penderecki's Garden podcasts was hosted by me - Charlotte Gardner. The show is brought to you by, the flagship brand of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, financed by the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport of the Republic of Poland, as part of the multi-annual programme 'Niepodległa' 2017 to 2022. Remember to subscribe and help us to promote the show by telling your friends about it. And if you would like to listen to more records of Christoph Penderecki or read interesting facts about his life and work, take a walk in Digital Penderecki '