The Black Mask
Penderecki’s The Black Mask is a one-act opera with a
libretto based on the play of that title by Gerhart
Hauptmann (1862–1946), the German dramatist, novelist and Nobel Prize laureate who
lived and wrote in Agnetendorf – now Jagniątków, Poland, an outlying district
of Jelenia Góra. The work is dominated by a mood of constantly growing tension
that foreshadows inexorable disaster.
The seemingly simple action is set in Bolkenhain – now Bolków in Lower Silesia – during a February afternoon in 1662, in the house of the mayor, Silvanus Schuller. He has invited friends and local luminaries to a great feast. His guests represent a cross-section of society. As the composer explained in a conversation with Anna and Zbigniew Baran, “at one table, we meet a Jew, a Huguenot, a Jansenist, an Evangelical minister and a Catholic abbot – what a mixed company!” The guests engage in religious disputes, drink wine, play cards and wander around the house to the accompaniment of dance music by a brass and percussion ensemble. Meantime, their fates are decided by mysterious forces and, as a result, “at a moment of threat […] all the intrigues and passions come out,sions come out into the lightult, " by (performed by a brass ensemble and percussion” revealing how illusive religious tolerance can be.
The opera’s dramatic tension centres on Benigna, Mayor Schuller’s wife, who hides a secret of her past from him: The “mulatta” Arabella, presented as her first husband’s adopted child, is in fact her biological daughter. Arabella’s father is Johnson, a fugitive slave who now prowls the area concealed under the black mask of the title, leaving puzzling traces behind. Johnson made Benigna marry her first husband, the slave trader van Geldern, only to murder him later. Now he blackmails his former lover, who is torn between opposed passions. The first expressive culmination comes about 45 minutes into the opera with the scene of the heroine making her confession and revealing her dark secret.
When Johnson takes off his mask and accuses Jedidja Potter, the mayor’s servant, of complicity in the murder, the latter dies of terror. Other characters remain unaware of his death – his body lies hidden under the table – andthe action inevitably leads to disaster. More signs of the dark force’s activity crop up. Town councillors bring plague news of a return of the Black Death, and cries of terror are heard from every corner. In the finale, the second culmination, Benigna succumbs to madness and mysteriously ends her life, while her husband commits suicide.
The Black Mask was the first work in which the composer attained a complete stylistic synthesis, combining discoveries made in his neo-romantic period with sonoristic elements of his early musical language. Using many heterogeneous types of material, he integrated them into a coherent whole of incredible expressive power attained largely thanks to vocal elements such as speech and sprechgesang. In this respect, Penderecki’s work comes closest to the tradition of expressionism created in the early 20th century by Richard Strauss and Alban Berg. An important musical elementin the opera are quotations evoking various traditions, from the Protestant chorales O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden intoned by Jedidja Potter and Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir played by the church tower chimes, to dance music coming from the theatre gallery that is based on a 17th-century Silesian collection of lute music, (an excerpt from Penderecki’s Te Deum and an arrangement of his setting of Dies irae from A Polish Requiem.
The musical narrative is full of life and rhythm, reflecting the hectic mood and frequently serving to characterise those on stage. There are even longer fragments in which the main role is played by “concertante” percussion instruments, especially membranophones. The densely chromatic texture full of dissonant intervals (seconds, ninths, sevenths and tritones) serves the same purpose, consistently increasing the tension. The opera is a metaphorical vision of the dance of death – a topic frequently taken up by artists in different periods, especially in the field of fine arts. In Penderecki’s work, however, this mixture of the macabre and clowning takes on a different character from that of medieval or baroque representations. Rather than serving as a warning against eternal damnation, it is, as musicologist Regina Chłopicka has observed, “a picture of total extinction and of the world plunging into chaos,” as well as a protest “against death losing its metaphysical dimension in our times.”