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Recordings

Paul Hindemith: Cardillac
25 May 2008

HINDEMITH: Cardillac

Premiered in 1926, Paul Hindemith’s opera Cardillac is a three-act work based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story Das Fräulein von Scuderi.

Paul Hindemith: Cardillac

Donald McIntyre, Robert Schunk, Maria de Francesca-Cavazza, Hans Günther Nöcker, Der Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Das Bayerische Staatsorchester, Wolfgang Sawallisch (cond.). Staged and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4324 [DVD]

$27.98  Click to buy

Unlike Hindemith’s other operas from the 1920s, like Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen or Hin und Zurück, Cardillac on the surface seems to be more traditional than those others, which reflect the Zeitoper-style that was popular at the time. After all, Cardillac is a story that takes place in a quasi-historic setting, rather than a libretto that derives from contemporary events. Yet the cynicism and irony at the core of Hoffmann’s famous tale is a potent foil for issues that had a certain relevance for Hindemith’s time. Cardillac is the famous goldsmith of Paris, who fabricates wonderful things and also retrieves them by theft and murder, and the plot revolves around the dilemma of revealing to the public that the beloved fabricant is also the criminal who made an entire city fearful. Surrounded by sympathetic characters, Cardillac neither recants nor confesses; rather, when his deception is revealed, Cardillac receives the murderous judgment of the crowd.

In such a violent story Hindemith found a means of exploring situations that Romantic composers chose not to pursue, and this allowed him to use a dissonant harmonic idiom to bring Hoffmann’s story to the stage. Dissonant, but not atonal, Hindemith’s musical idiom makes the doomed Cavalier’s aria, at the end of the first scene, effective. Likewise, Cardillac’s monologue at the opening of the second act establishes his character, which Hindemith could only suggest through various hints earlier in the work. As the work plays out, Hindemith used a combination of vocal and instrumental pieces to support the libretto, which is a faithful transformation of Hoffmann’s famous story. Like some of the made creators of fiction, the famous Rappacini of the nineteenth-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the daughter is the positive counterpart of the father, and this character allows Hindemith to use some of his more effective music to underscore her image in sound. The more tonal and less dissonant sonorities associated with Cardillac’s daughter stands apart from some of the more frenetic music of her father.

In 1985 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created a new production of the original 1926 version of Cardillac for the Bavarian Opera, and this DVD makes his inspired staging available to a new generation. Rooted in eighteenth-century costume and design, the staging sometimes distorts convention to reflect Hindemith’s modern idiom. At the same time, lighting effects sometimes suggest film techniques of the 1920s to intensify such scenes as the murder of the Cavalier. In fact, the shuttering light underscores the violent act through the discontinuous images that the audience must connect in perceiving the action. Other images, like Cardillac’s shop are fanciful enough to merit the kind of repeated viewing possible on DVD, an aspect of the production that is more ephemeral when viewed on stage in live performances.

This production benefits from the fine leadership of Wolfgang Sawallisch, whose direction gave shape to this infrequently performed score. His tempos serve Hindemith’s score well by allowing both the music and text to emerge clearly. He brings out details, but never lets any single element overbalance the others. A case in point is jazz idiom that Hindemith uses in a stylized manner near the end of the opera, and it intersects well with the dissonant counterpoint of the duet that follows.

Over all Sawallisch has created in this performance an idiom in which Donald McIntyre could make Cardillac’s complex character audible, as found in his monologue at the end of the second act, “Mag Mondlicht Leuchten!” McIntyre is, indeed the focus of Hindemith’s opera, a detail that sets it apart from Hoffmann’s short story in its reference to Madame Scuderi. Thus, the daughter, as sung by Maria de Francesca-Cavazza, is critical to the narrative through her relationship with the Officer, which Robert Schunk delivers admirably. Not simply determined to resolve the identity of the murderer, the Officer‘s duty is complicated by his familiarity with Cardillac’s daughter, and this is related well in the duet “Meine Lippen auf die Wunde,” which sets up the dénouement in the scene that follows. Schunk does well to counterpoise Cardillac, both dramatically and musically.

The other roles are also cast well, with Doris Soffel making the character of the lady (“Die Dame) in the first act, quite memorable. Josef Hopferwieser is her Cavalier, a brief, but crucial figure in the opening scenes of Cardillac. Yet beyond the solo performers, the chorus stands out a critical element that sets the tone at the opening of the opera and executes the resolution of the drama at the end. The ensemble is tight and clear – a model for the kind of clear and effective choral performance that must occur in this score.

While Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler may be nominally more familiar because of the well-known symphony its composer derived from it, Cardillac deserves attention as a powerful stage work. With such a convincing performance available on DVD, it raises the question about the place of this opera among Hindemith’s works and within the context of twentieth-century operas. A relatively short work of about ninety minutes, its concision is admirable, and it could benefit from more performances both in Europe and elsewhere. In fact, another performance of this work is also available on DVD, a recent production of Cardillac by the Paris National Opera, conducted by Kent Nagano, with a cast that includes such performers as Angela Denoke and Charles Workman. Yet those interested in Cardillac may wish to view this earlier performance released by Deutsche Grammophon because of both the fine execution of the score under Sawallisch’s direction and also the remarkable staging that Ponnelle contributed to the opera as a whole. .

James L. Zychowicz

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