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Paul Hindemith (1923) [Photo: Wikipedia]
14 Dec 2010

Paris: ‘Maler’ or ‘Malheur’?

No one could accuse the Paris Opera of pinching pennies (or Euro cents) in their lavishly expansive (and expensive) staging of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler

Albrecht von Brandenburg: Scott MacAllister; Mathis: Matthias Goerne; Lorenz von Pommersfelden: Thorsten Gruen; Wolfgang Capito: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Riedinger: Gregory Reinhart; Hans Schwalb: Michael Weinius; Ursula: Melanie Diener; Regina: Martina Welschenbach; Countess of Helfenstein: Nadine Weissman; Truchsess von Waldburg: Antoine Garcin; Sylvester von Schaumberg: Eric Huchet. Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach. Director: Oliver Py. Set and Costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Kelly. Chorus Master: Patrick Marie Aubert.

Above: Paul Hindemith (1923) [Photo: Wikipedia]


Unfortunately, sometimes more can be less, and the personal plight of the characters too often seemed secondary to the hulking, tracking set design created by Pierre-André Weitz. Not that it wasn’t well constructed and functional. It was. Mostly. But the massive three-story facade with staircases and platforms and ornate gleaming gold frou-frou dwarfed everything and everyone every time it appeared. It was meant to dazzle, and it did sparkle and gleam, but mostly it distracted as it rolled, sunk, rotated and did everything but stand on its head and whistle Dixie.

Having updated the period to just after the time of its composition (read: WW2), there were some coherent images that paralleled Matthias Grűnewald’s struggle for artistic expression in the repressive climate of his day with the challenges Hindemith faced as the Nazis gained control of the country. But there were many other ideas that just didn’t quite mesh with the tale of the beleaguered painter of the colorful Isenheim Alterpiece. And there were some downright oddities in scenic decisions.

Why did a functional, chest-high platform bearing a living quasi-tableau of the altarpiece have holes in its floor so that characters could stand up on the (lower) main stage floor, chest-high in the spaces? In fact, what on earth was director Oliver Py thinking when he had the cast bending over and crawling underneath said platform to get from behind it to the stage apron to sing? What was that about? St. Cunegonde’s cure for backaches? Too often the performers seemed to be singing to us, or about each other, rather than to each other.

The siege/attack/rebellion segments were physicalized by manually rolling on Panzers and tromping in storm troopers, and placing it all in bombed out mansions and government buildings, and lacing it heavily with swastikas. All well and good enough I suppose, but the dreariness of war-torn Germany made the occasionally ponderous writing even more turgid, and the resonance that the creative team had aspired to didn’t quite occur. Weitz fared better with his characterful 40’s costumes, although there was the odd 15th century garb hither and thither that garbled the physical impression.

In an apparent attempt to goose up the visuals, lighting designer Bertrand Kelly seemed to pull out all the stops with a riot of gobo effects, hazers, film loops, rotating prisms, Vari-Lites, you name it. It was not unlike a stage lighting trade show. In addition to some lively and evocative illumination, however, Mr. Kelly also turned blinding white lights on the audience on more than one occasion, causing patrons to physically turn their heads away, wince and squint, hold a hand up to shield their eyes, and generally react with considerable discomfort. Hmmmmm. Were the focus to be more sensibly adjusted, this would make the light plot emphatically the most satisfying design element, for it was otherwise well-considered.

The title role calls for heroic utterance and Herculean stamina. Matthias Goerne had quite enough of the latter if not the former. I greatly enjoy Mr. Goerne in recital, and was entertained by his Papageno in Salzburg. But precious nuance, and engaging charm are not what Mr. Hindemith is asking for. Our leading man is more often than not called upon to pour out pulsing, solid phrases over a multi- and thickly-layered orchestration. Our baritone was found slightly wanting on the lower conversational passages and the upper forte extremes of the part. The rich middle voice was deployed very conscientiously, although it has to be said that Goerne’s grainy tone did not always slice through the accompaniment with ease, if at all. The top was pressed when volume was needed and turned somewhat straight and dry. Happily, the final great monologue played to all of his considerable interpretive gifts, and he managed to limn a moving finale, limpid and introspective without being self-pitying. Matthias is undeniably a major artist but the role is simply a size too large for his instrument. Pity.

2eOuvertureRetable_lb.gifIsenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (1506-1515)

Not so with the Albrecht von Brandenburg as sung by Scott MacAllister. The bright, incisive, clarion tenor may not have the elegant richness of say, James King, but McAllister nails the part. Is it quibbling to wish that he was capable of more variety of color when he sings it this well? I also admired Thorsten Gruen who utilized his vibrant, dark bass baritone to good musical effect as Lorenz von Pommersfelden. Every bit his equal, Michael Weinius offered a beautiful orotund bass in the service of Hans Schwalb. In the less grateful role of Wolfgang Capito, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was musically competent if dramatically flat, and did all that was required, if no more. Gregory Reinhart’s solid bass gave much pleasure as Riedinger, with veteran basso Antoine Garcin in thundering voice as Truchsess von Waldburg.

Melanie Diener has a fine career going with notable appearances at major houses. Hers is a meaty enough soprano, with a reedy quality and quicksilver vibrato that serves the role of Ursula very well indeed. She has a vibrant stage presence and is wholly involved in the drama. Her musical instincts are first rate, and her sound technique delivers whatever she (and the composer) asks of it. It is true, the cruelly high tessitura on a few angular phrases challenged her to modulate to a thinner, tighter production. But Ms. Diener delivered the goods, and projected the most fire of anyone on the stage. Curiously, she didn’t have quite the cumulative impact I imagined she should, but maybe it is a limitation of the writing? Altogether a first class performance none the less.

The lovely, lilting singing from lovely, blond Martina Welschenbach also brought much joy to the proceedings as Regina. Ms. Welschenbach also has a winning stage demeanor and dramatic savvy. Her well-schooled soprano rang out with good presence, and she assuredly contributed some of the evening’s most affecting phrasing. Nadine Weissman gave a solid, plummy account of the Countess of Helfenstein’s featured scenes.

Mathis der Maleris unquestionably better known as a greatly truncated symphonic piece and if we have any expectations coming into the auditorium, it is to hear the orchestral music thrilling played. Christoph Eschenbach and his splendid orchestra did not disappoint. The greater the challenge the better this group seems to play and they were riveting all night as they tossed off every fiendish requirement Hindemith could devise. Rich, complex banks of strings? You got it. Virtuosic solo turns? No problem. Heart-racing rhythmic effects? Check. Magnificent work from the pit. And kudos to the always fine chorus under the tutelage of Patrick Marie Aubert.

I have (perhaps overly) fond recollections of a beautifully sung, sparingly staged version of the piece in Wiesbaden many years ago, with the altarpiece itself forming almost the entire scenic concept. Masterful, I thought at the time. I found myself longing for its simpler, less bombastic pleasures. But still, it is always wonderful to have any opportunity at all to see Mathis der Maler and if Paris’s unruly design elements are really more “malheur” than “Maler” perhaps they could be tamed, the blocking quirks addressed, and the current staging might just yet be fully redeemed by its superior musical achievements.

James Sohre

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