in: Reviews

February 27, 2011

Cardillac, Feast of the Fraught

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Opera Boston gave the New England premiere of Paul Hindemith’s opera Cardillac, a work that had not been performed in the United States for over forty years, on Friday, February 25, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The production demonstrated the company’s ability to make the most of limited and, in this case, often indecipherable material.

Cardillac is a troublesome work. It was written in Germany in the 1920s, and the libretto by Ferdinand Lion, based on a novel by E.T.A. Hoffmann, reflects to an extreme degree the angst-ridden explosion of cultural freedom and dark exploration that permeated that time and place. The story is about a goldsmith, Cardillac, who creates such grizzly beautiful works (perhaps aided by the Devil) that he cannot part with them. Whenever someone buys a piece, Cardillac murders the buyer to get it back. Throughout the opera, he lies, obsesses, kills, mentally abuses his daughter, allows the brutal torture of his dealer—and is hailed as a beloved hero in the end (after an angry mob beats him to death) because he finally admits to his crimes. It is a story told in short, uncomfortable episodes that always seem to lead to even worse and more confusing places than one expects, with an ending that is part Weimar hedonism, part small-town evangelicalism, and that really doesn’t make any sense at all.

Yet the story isn’t the problem. Despite how one may feel about the structure and the moral (or lack thereof) of the tale, it is a richly kaleidoscopic trip through anxieties, loves, hatreds, betrayals, depressions, and desires, a multi-layered feast of the fraught that requires equally varied flavors from the music. The problem is that the thirty-year old Hindemith was unable to deliver that variety; he simply could not write music that supports all that emotional content. His craft is, of course, stunning, revealing an inordinate talent for shape, counterpoint, and rhythmic momentum. These skills served well in the opening scene when a crowd of art-gallery patrons, upon discovering the body of a murder victim, becomes franticly panicked. But they fall short of expressing the varieties and extremes of emotions contained in the entire story, such as the father-daughter duet, which never reaches the level of tenderness it calls for. Instead, the relentlessly complex linear textures and non-committal harmonic language for which Hindemith was so famous (and grew to manage with more sophistication as he got older), combined with a lackluster sort of “B-flat” orchestration, creates an aura of sonic grayness that compresses all that expression into a rather limited and unsatisfying emotional space.

That being said, however, Opera Boston’s production of the work was quite remarkable. For the most part, its strength lay in the casting. Each role was given to a singer whose vocal characteristics were unusually well suited to the person they were portraying. Tenor Frank Kelley brought a brilliantly brazen, spidery voice to the part of The Cavalier, making him fittingly unctuous and brittle. Janna Baty’s mezzo-soprano voice was as sensuous, sad, and voluptuous as is The Lady she portrayed. Sol Kim Bentley as Cardillac’s daughter sang with a bright, almost shrill soprano that seemed at times to scream out all the repression inside that character. And both the strong, rich bass of David Kravitz’ Gold Merchant and the full, powerful tenor of Steven Sanders’ Officer brought far more depth and energy to their characters than the writing suggests. The one exception to this fitting vocal cast was Sanford Sylvan in the title role. His voice, lovely though it is, is too smooth and colorless for a character as tortured as Cardillac, though he did make true attempts at bringing some grit to it; and the part itself is too big for his instrument, so that toward the end of the performance, one had the sense that he had bitten off a bit more than he could chew. On the other hand, conductor Gil Rose was very much in his element, doing what he does best: keeping up the momentum, offering flawless guidance to the singers and instrumentalists and bringing clarity to almost unbearable musical intricacy.

As for the visual elements, Director Nic Muni presided over a production that was sparsely Neo-Expressionistic and appropriately grotesque. It all took place in Cardillac’s gallery (with a couple of scenes in what was probably a street out in front), a large, cold space of warped angles and unnatural light. The costumes were creepy caricatures of their own styles, and the singer-actors in them often moved with exaggerated gestures. Hats (and belts) off especially to Kelley and Baty for giving their all in one of the most deliciously disturbing sadomasochistic pantomimes one is likely ever to see on an operatic stage. The most striking aspect of the production, however, was the use of lighting to cast all manner of shadows on the severely sloped walls of the gallery. It gave the effect of a second play from a flat, dark, distorted universe paralleling the three-dimensional one; a silent, visual Greek Chorus commenting on and participating in the whole twisted tale. It was, in many ways, the most chilling aspect of the entire performance, darkly radiating a sort of emotional summary of all that bizarreness.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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4 Comments

  1. I agree. This was a performance that I found largely monochromatic and uninvolving, a frustrating, dispiritingly paradoxical mix of frenetic, near desperate stage energy with a criss-crossing tangle in the pit of self-cancelling musical busy-ness. Certainly here’s a case of Hindemith not being up to the power and potential of his material, rather like Mozart, too young, too ill-equipped at age 14 to do justice to Mitridate, Re di Ponto, richer material for opera than what he was handed (and admittedly helped shape), a crucial eleven light-years later, in Idomeneo. So the stage blazes white or spews red, while the orchestra spins away in a limbo of incognizant grisaille. That said, I commend Opera Boston for offering many of us a belated opportunity to unwrap and savor, in brilliant production and performance, such rare fare.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — February 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

  2. Oh dear. A spot-on review except for a complete misreading (and mishearing) of Sanford Sylvan’s extraordinary performance. Instead of “playing mad,” Sylvan gave us a character around which all the emotions could whirl: intense, focused. Not a mad genius but a genius. His vocal artistry handled the text like Lieder — his way with German was in a different league from his perfectly adequate peers — and drew us into his world.

    And why were all those visitors to a display of art jewelry in the near future wearing little more than underwear? That was a disappointing bit of hackneyed regie foolishness.

    Comment by Bill — February 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  3. Richard Dyer mentioned in the discussion after the Sunday performance that Sylvan’s performance had an element of bel canto. His pitches were very clear, which is not always the rule with singers of Hindemith’s music, and this seems even more important in this highly dense score.

    Comment by interglossa — February 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm

  4. This seems to be a misguided review, or at least written from a peculiar standpoint. Hindemith’s music in Cardillac was the best feature in this production – the counterpoint alone was already a delight, and the expressiveness of the music was piercing. The father-daughter duet was actually absolutely captivating, fully reaching for the daughter’s desperate need for tenderness while the father gives only coldness. Perhaps the reviewer was missing this kind of a nuance? The energy of the music, the variety of form – concertante arias, recitatives, duets again, with ever changing texture using dissonance as well keeps the listener captivated for the whole duration of the opera. Music-wise, it was my experience at this production.

    The singing was varied; teh tenor Frank Kelley had a tired, hollow voice which is passable in a Boston Opera house since he could sing. Cardillac (Sanford Sylvan) was actually very good, but definitely he is not on par with Alan Held who sang this role in Paris; at the same time, this opera is seldom performed, and not too many comparisions can be drawn.

    Other members of the cast sang well; but it was “one of the most deliciously disturbing sadomasochistic pantomimes one is likely ever to see on an operatic stage” that was so outdated in its use of gratuitous sadomasoshism in the grand Eurotrash tradition that permeates German theaters but at the moment far surpasses what the reviewer seems to imagine in his wildest dreams. After the performance the production team could not explain convincingly their vision for that explicit scene. They seemed to be missing a point that in fact a scene of lavish pleasure would be much more fitting for the story, only stressing the sadism of the murder that follows the pleasure.

    Overall, however, Opera Boston should be commended on this undertaking. It was a very good choice to present a modern audience with a contrapuntal relatively modern (not baroque) opus, and not another Bellini/Donizetti syrupy tear-jerker. Hindemith’s is string music, written in turbulent times and for a somewhat sophisticated listener – a German, who are accustomed to this style and could appreciate continuation of Handel-Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-Wagner ring, of which Hindemith is a product and further developer.

    Comment by Anna Shlimovich — September 22, 2011 at 3:33 am

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