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.