Hindemith - Mathis der Maler

ONP Bastille, Thursday November 25 2010

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach. Production: Olivier Py. Sets & costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Albrecht von Brandenburg: Scott Mac Allister. Mathis: Matthias Goerne. Lorenz von Pommersfelden: Thorsten Grümbel. Wolfgang Capito: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Riedinger: Gregory Reinhart. Hans Schwalb: Michael Weinius. Truchsess von Waldburg: Antoine Garcin. Sylvester von Schaumberg: Eric Huchet. Ursula: Melanie Diener. Regina: Martina Welschenbach. Die Gräfin von Helfenstein: Nadine Weissmann. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

My preconceived ideas are nearly always wrong. I suppose I’ll even end up on my deathbed, like a character in Mauriac or Waugh, copping out and making the sign of the cross. How many times have I started a report by saying an evening at the opera turned out either better or worse than I expected? And how come, having said so many times we should expect nothing (never to be disappointed), I go on having these expectations one way or the other? I didn’t expect Mathis der Maler to be much more interesting than Cardillac; but at some point during the second hour I found myself thinking “this is a bloody good opera.” It’s opera that wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste – the antithesis of divertissement and unlikely to appeal to those whose idea of bliss is an evening at home with La Finta Giardiniera, a cup of Earl Grey and a plate of sprouts. It’s meaty: a dense story, with things to think about and a garrulous text and score, the latter not nervously chatty like Cardillac but more, in a way, like Hindemith’s Tote Stadt. I’ve ordered a set of CDs to get to know it better, as I admit I previously knew only two of his works: the symphony drawn from Mathis, and the Symphonic Metamorphoses (as it happens, one of the first pieces I ever played in a “proper” orchestra).

The Paris Opera’s aim in staging this for the first time was evidently to do it proud. Often the Bastille’s gaping proscenium is doubled up with a second, black frame to make it a more reasonable size for other houses’ sets. Here, for once, the stage and its computer-driven machinery were used in their entirety and apparently with little expense spared, occasionally bringing to mind - the battle-scarred façades waltzing around, no doubt, and people running across the stage with red flags - Francesca Zambello’s War and Peace, probably the best thing she ever did in Paris. Py’s production of Mathis wasn’t up to that standard, but it was a fair stab at what must be nearly as daunting a task (as tackling War and Peace, I mean). Giant chunks of set were spun slowly round a great deal. Three studded brass boxes, each the size of a house, rising to three tiered storeys of golden gothic arcades when required, could be turned to form a golden courtyard for the cardinal, or lined up side-by-side simply to fill the whole proscenium, en long et en large, with a kind of gilded Doges’ palace. For scenes of war, the lights of battle sparkled across a vast, silvery backdrop (looking only a tiny bit like Christmas tree lights in a draught), bottom-edged with a bombed-out city-scape, while extras and chorus, in perfect 40s costumes, black and grey, wheeled those battle-scarred façades and wove full-size tanks in and out and round and round the garish street lights, in a kind of virtuoso display of stage-handing. When the house was searched for seditious texts, a whole basement-full of tightly-packed papers rose out of the boards while, above, guards in Nazi uniforms with tugging Alsatians (German shepherds to some of you) prowled and books were burnt in an oil drum. Sometimes, on the other hand, the stage, vast and marked as a football pitch, was bare.

The Isenheim altar was never actually reproduced on stage, but its form appeared, larger than life, as giant windows cut out of a black screen, behind which studio assistants and artist’s models made their preparations and took up their poses for a “sitting” seen as shadow-play. There were bare-chested angels with red wings and evening trousers whose function (the angels', not the trousers') wasn’t quite clear; though, true, as I remember there’s at least one red-winged angel (without the evening trousers) in the pictures; and during the (not-very-scary; in fact a bit bathetic) Temptations of St Anthony, extras wore monstrous headpieces taken straight from Grünewald.

I don’t know Py particularly well, so I don’t know if the overall theatrical stiffness, with characters more like symbols than actual people, was a parti pris, Hindemith’s fault, or simply a directing weakness. The action seemed more hieratic than fluid. It was, as I said, a fair stab at a difficult piece. But the use of free-standing sets and otherwise vast, empty spaces didn’t help the singers’ projection. And I must say I had the feeling we might be watching a revival of something from the 90s, not a brand new, 2010 production. I know why Py used Nazi uniforms - he explained in an interview in the Opera's own magazine - but it was corny nevertheless.

The score, over three hours long, calls (at least if you're going to stage it in a barn like the Bastille) for a Wagnerian cast: Brünnhildes and Sieglindes and Frickas. Perhaps I was in one of the house's unpredictable acoustic blind spots. And certainly, when you're on the first balcony, the orchestral sound shoots straight up from the pit. But despite their very best efforts, and I don't doubt they were making them - you could see and sort-of-hear they were putting in sterling work - and with the cavernous stage often wide open behind them, the two principal ladies lacked impact. In the circumstances, perhaps only Gwyneth Jones could have pulled off Ursula, with a young Deborah Voigt as Regina, maybe. Nadine Weissman, on the other hand, didn’t seem up to her role.

The men fared better. Gregory Reinhart rang through as Riedinger, Scott Mac Allister was a remarkable, clarion Albrecht, and Matthias Goerne, whose soft timbre made it hard for him always to project across the orchestra, nevertheless sang beautifully and ended all – music and production – magnificently, with a moving, final, Lieder-like scene over an at-last-quiet orchestra (that had me oddly thinking of the death of Don Quichotte), dropping his belongings slowly and silently, one by one, into a trap before expiring at the final chords.

The chorus at times sounded like they were still unfamiliar with the work, but the Opéra orchestra played magnificently, as, in that peculiarly French way, they can when they set their minds to it, under Eschenbach. They and he would have been the stars of the show, had Goerne not stepped in at the end to steal it.

A brief footnote: I spared a thought for Rodney Gilfrey, who was so upset by the winking red lights of people’s cameras when he sang The Sound of Music at the Châtelet. In the reflective golden sets, you could see them – great gobs of red light going off all the time as people took snapshots of the show. I see how distracting it might be…

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