Sunday, 30 May 2010

Penderecki's Paradise Lost in Wrocław

My initial impetus for going to Wrocław was the coincidence that of finding that a Polish friend I'd lost and regained touch with was now living back there (I knew him previously in London) only a day or two of noticing that there was a rare performance of Penderecki's Paradise Lost at the opera house there. A trip to see my friend and this rarity proved irresistible.

The Wrocław opera are based in a good old traditional 19th century opera house with a prettily (some might think too prettily) decorated interior. The repertoire is mostly the staples (Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Carmen) mixed with some more local favourites, for example The Haunted Manor and Król Roger; Penderecki is a Polish composer – perhaps the best known living one – but the inclusion of his relatively obscure 1978 setting of Milton's epic poem is an act of some bravery on their part. The Sunday afternoon performance I attended was about two thirds full, and the audience didn't feel particularly enthusiastic. Like a lot of people (I suppose), I was made aware of Penderecki's music by its inclusion on the soundtrack to The Shining; he had a fierce avant-garde reputation in the 1950s and 60s but since the 1980s he has taken a more conservative route which he refers to as him having "come to a point where it appears most creative to turn back and open the door we have shut behind us".  Paradise Lost is mid-period Penderecki and its sonorous, deep and gloomy music is well fitted to setting a text based on a work by the author of At a Solemn Music.

This is the second theatrical adaptation of Paradise Lost I have seen, after Rupert Gould's production of Ben Power's version for Headlong. Despite having being a relatively dialogic epic poem, whose writer made his own contribution to the Jacobean theatre scene with the masque Comus, Paradise Lost usually proves tricky to make dramatic.  Its scope is enormous, and its structure – whizzing from the fallen angels in hell through flashbacks to their rebellion in heaven onwards to the temptation of Adam and Eve and then flash-forwards to later events in Biblical history, there's too much there for a single play. Christopher Fry wrote the libretto for Penderecki and does a decent job of getting it down to a manageable two and a half hours but loses the battle in Heaven, which is one of the most dramatic sections of the poem. He brings Milton on stage at the beginning and at intervals throughout, to introduce and narrate the action; this is strong, as it suggests that what we are seeing are the visions of a bard, the performance our visionary experience. The Wrocław production began well, with Penderecki's music brooding over a dark stage, with the figure of blind Milton being led by a dogged boy gradually becoming clear as the lights rose – us being introduced to our own temporary form. Milton's part is spoken and has the great effect of an incantation.

In Fry's rearrangement of the material, Milton/we first see a moping Adam and Eve in postlapsarian guilt and despair over the loss of Eden. We then meet the hordes of hell, and witness the council at which the devils discuss how to deal with their fall. This structure works well and preserves a strength of the poem, wherein one gets the feeling of having backdrops lifted to show what lies behind each thing we encounter. The devils at Wrocław were dressed as a cross between Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings orcs and Clive Barker's Hellraiser team of Cenobites. This was a fairly straightforward visual imagining of the poem with devils looking ugly and devlish and angels looking pure and angelic. As these are poetic figurations, this didn't prevent me as an audience member reading them as signs but sometimes it did seem a bit obvious as a choice, even a little ludicrous at times – when the devils did a demon dance near the beginning, it looked a little like a geriatric version of the zombie routine from the Thriller video.

Satan is always going to be the focus of interest in Paradise Lost, as despite being the theologically the antagonist, dramatically he is the protagonist – goal orientated and driven in a way that none of the other characters are. In Wrocław he is dressed in leather trousers and cuts a half-attractive, half-campy figure. Piotr Nowacki sung him with an impressive authority but did a little too much swishing of his long leather coat, suggesting that this when he states it is "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven" I got the feeling he was going to be the Queen rather than the King. He had great moments though, best of all when he lurks and lingers voyeuristically observing the happy couple in Eden, a malcontent singleton who disses partnership whilst burning in the hell of lacking one. Whatever my qualms about the design and performance, Satan is the most energetic and compelling presence on stage; Adam and Eve begin as whiners and for most of the time either stay doing that or stay dull under God's law. Eve's giving in to temptation feels like the best decision she ever made, and Adam's best moment is when he takes the plunge himself, more committed to a life with the wife he loves that obedience to the laws of the God who made him.

Fry's best decision in the libretto is having two sets of performers as Adam and Eve – two singers, for the disquisitive  sections and two dancers for the action. The Adam dancer – sturdy Sergei Oberemok (who really does look the part of the Human Form Divine) – brilliantly expressed Adam's birth pangs in a coming to being more reminiscent of a Frankenstein movie than a Bible tale. Later, the two dancers perform a fairly raunchy consummation of their marriage – Milton was certainly the greatest poet of married love the world has known and here his words take a physical form which manages that most difficult of tasks for contemporary artists, to make marriage an erotic activity. A dance with anthropomorphic animals as Adam names them (as in one of Dylan's quirkiest Christian-period numbers) was less successful, being somewhat reminiscent of that long and best forgotten West End musical flop Children of Eden.

Eden in the Wrocław PL is a dubious place. The walls are plain and the angels walk around entirely dressed in white, as if this were some sinister private mental institution or science lab with Adam and Eve the inmates/subjects of experiment. God is never seen but spoken in an amplified voice; as his speeches are accompanied by a large ball hanging over Adam's head, there's something of The Prisoner about Adam's predicament. William Empson argued that Milton's God was a prediction of Stalin and this makes the production and story very relevant indeed for post-socialist Poland; the population has been tempted to escape from the prison-Eden of the Soviet era but the world waiting for them is one of toil and blood. It is ironic, given how antithetical to communism the Catholic church is, how close the God of creation in Milton (and, indeed, Genesis) is to a Stalinist authoritarian. In this reading, Satan would be the temptations of neoliberalism, promising freedom but providing struggle, wars, pestilence and pain.

Later in the libretto, as Michael shows Adam mankind's future, Fry calls for "A series of static and moving images from the beginning of time to the present, of man's physical and mental affliction." The projections were dispensed with by director Waldemar Zawodziński; a mime/dance in which nearly-naked extras stepped out of a pen with an iron-door to drop dead one by one was substituted; this had chilling resonances with the death camps, the most notorious and murderous of which are of course in Poland. What Michael presents to Adam as humanity's future is our terrifying recent past and potential present.

The final section of the opera is dramatically under-played and the performance ends on a tentative note. This is a little underwhelming but I can't quite make out whether it is a failing or a deliberate subversion of our expectations for climax and resolution. Penderecki didn't quite describe Paradise Lost as an opera, rather as sacra rappresentazione, a cross between opera and oratorio. At Wrocław, the chorus are offstage, on either side of the auditorium on the edges of the first circle, reminiscent of a church choir. Thus this performance of Penderecki's work attempts to abolish the differentiation between church-going and theatre-going, which is promising in the light of Blake's "What is a Church & What Is a Theatre? are they Two & not One? can they Exist Separate?" If theatres becoming churches meant the performance of ideologically leading works which disallow mental fight then this would be a bad thing but given that Penderecki's Paradise Lost points the way towards a deeply questioning and ambiguous spiritual tale, I found something in the performance deeply inspiring. The opera has all the virtues of Milton and all of his problematics (not least Messias, who in Zawodziński's mise-en-scene is a static marble-like figure in white, eerily reminding me of Syberberg's conception of Amfortas in his Parsifal film). The congregation/audience are presented with such thorny imagery and such a difficult and unfinished story and this makes Paradise Lost, for all the classical, Christian and conservative associations that Milton/Penderecki/Fry might suggest as a trio, a radical experience and not at all mere preaching or cant.

It hope that the opera becomes better known, as it does present us with what is still one of the fundamental stories of our civilisation in a way which expresses all its inspiring difficulties and sets them to music which is deep, dark, expressive and, whilst overly homogeneous for some tastes in the orchestrations, varied and fluent in its use of many voices, from speaking roles to counter-tenors and boy choirs.

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