The commission for a piece commemorating the bicentenary of the United States called for an adequate choice of subject. Penderecki found it in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The librettist Christopher Fry omitted the philosophical elements, selecting 1,500 lines from among more than 10,000 in the poem. Fry also shifted the emphasis: In the 17th-centuryEnglish epic, the symbolic central figures had been Satan and God, but in Fry’s arrangement their roles seem less important, and the libretto focuses on the first people and their lives within the orbit of good and evil. This universal theme and the libretto’s handling of fundamental existential questions – the origins of evil, the cost of free will, man’s “fallen” nature and the transforming power of love – mean that Penderecki’s work can be seen as addressed “not only to a Christian audience”.
As in the Passion, the story of Adam and Eve is reported and commented upon mainly by the choir; we also hear God and Milton himself. The musically conceived Heaven and Hell, the spheres of light and darkness, engage in eternal struggle through the pages of the score. The orchestra also comments upon events, and in some productions of Paradise Lost Adam and Eve are portrayed by dancers interacting with singers in those two roles. Independent musical characterisations and careful choice of instrumentation facilitate a semantic analysis of the work, and allow the audience to follow the course of events without paying attention to the drama of the vocal parts – practically “with closed eyes”. Adam’s part, for instance, is usually accompanied by strings, and Eve’s by flute, oboe and bells. The parts of the first people are marked by third intervals, where tritones and semitones along with brass instruments appear in the part of Satan, and octaves, unisons and the organ are the attributes of God.
The music of action, or diegetic, and of stage context – atmospheric – are hard to distinguish at times. The procession of animals is represented in an illustrative but also symbolic fashion – the appearance of the swan is accompanied by a quotation from Wagner’s Lohengrin, and musical quotations include Bach’s chorale O grosse Lieb’ from the St. John Passion). However, when Archangel Michael reveals to Adam the consequences of sin, onomatopoeias are coupled with narrative elements including the vision of Abel’s death, of the plague, war and flood, combined in a passacaglia.
Elements that had much bearing on the reception of this work include its length at more than three hours, the sound language (the harmony, in particular), the Wagnerian approach to vocal parts and the late-Romantic type of expression. The return to the origins of opera-oratorio (sacra rappresentazione) attracted criticism, especially in a production meant strictly for the stage – though there were also expressions of admiration and testimonies of profound emotional experience. The premiere of Paradise Lost attracted dozens of press representatives to Chicago, and radio broadcast the oratorio to an audience of millions in 14 countries around the world.
This recording documents the concert version of Paradise Lost presented in Wrocław.