Hindemith – Cardillac

ONP Bastille, Wednesday September 28 2005

Conductor: Kent Nagano. Production: André Engel. Sets: Nicky Rieti. Costumes: Chantal de La Coste-Messelière. Cardillac: Alan Held. Die Tochter: Angela Denoke. Der Offizier: Christopher Ventris. Die Dame: Hannah Esther Minutillo. Der Kavalier: Charles Workman. Der Goldhändler: Roland Bracht. Anführer der Prevote: Stephen Gadd. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Though only 90 minutes long, Cardillac is said to be the Paris opera’s most expensive production this season. If that’s the case, it will presumably be the biggest loss-maker, as I’ve never seen so many empty seats at the Bastille. But those who were there cheered it enthusiastically, and word had soon gone round, after the dress rehearsal, that it was a splendid staging.

Well, it was certainly spectacular. The overall aesthetic was art déco, contemporary with the work, and the Bastille’s huge stage managed rapid scene changes from the glamorous foyer of a 20s hotel, with a sweeping double staircase, to a room, then a suite, then the entire city roofscape at night, and finally back to the foyer.

A great deal of care (as well as money) had clearly gone into the costumes which, according to Bloomberg’s reviewer “look like cut-outs from early issues of The New Yorker magazine.” Rushing crowd scenes were skilfully handled and the soloists were well-directed and rehearsed, throwing themselves into the drama.

However, to my eye, the art déco decorations, though superficially glamorous, were less convincing than the sumptuous sets we had for La Rondine before the summer: more New York, New York (Las Vegas) or South Beach pastiche than “the real thing.” Art déco could work for this opera (apart from the glaring anachronism of the king appearing in 20s France), but what was needed, to my mind, was Fritz Lang, not Fred Astaire: the mismatch between these Wodehouse (or even Tintin) characters and the dense, angst-ridden German text robbed them of their credibility.

The opera itself has something of a relentless quality. Hindemith’s score is, well, typical Hindemith: dense as the text, contrapuntal and endlessly chatty – Yakataka, yakataka, yakataka in the woodwinds, sounding rather as if Bach had lived on and eventually turned to opera. Perhaps if Nagano had allowed the orchestra to accompany more, rather than playing it as a dramatic symphony with voices, my neighbour wouldn’t have remarked “it was as if a machine had been turned on full all evening.” Exhausting.

But the cast was strong and committed, the chorus was on top form, and in the end they made it work. The central trio stood out in particular. Whoever Alan Held is, I hope to hear him again: a giant with giant’s voice. Christopher Ventris looked a bit silly in aviator’s gear, but vocally was on great form. And Angela Denoke, though characteristically woozy at the top, is better suited to this kind of role than, say, Fidelio. The rest of the cast was almost as good.

Seats are now available at a considerable discount on www.lastminute.com, for those who may be interested…

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