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Performances

Michael Eder and Tom Martinsen [Photo by Jochen Quast]
30 May 2016

Mathis der Maler, Dresden

While Pegida anti-refugee demonstrations have been taking place for a while now in Dresden, there was something noble about the Semperoper with its banners declaring all are welcome, listing Othello, the Turk, and the hedon Papageno as examples.

Mathis der Maler, Dresden

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Michael Eder and Tom Martinsen

Photos by Jochen Quast

 

The political situation made the legendary opera house’s new production of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Matthew the Painter) all the more urgent. This intellectually stimulating, musically enthralling, and utterly exhausting experience, made for a rare, highly enriching and unforgettable trip.

Though a popular composer with the avant-garde youth in Germany during the interbellum, Hindemith’s eleven operas are nowadays rarely performed. You might recognize the opera’s title from the composer’s instrumental precursor Symphony: Mathis der Maler. For the opera, he wrote his own libretto. Instead of Acts, Hindemith structured his magnum opus in seven Bilder (paintings).

Inspired by a visit to Isenheim and the altarpiece of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” by painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), Hindemith identified the Nazis’ artistic oppression of him with the painter’s struggle against the powers that be during the Great Peasants’ War--the largest uprising against the aristocracy before the French Revolution. Later, the Nazis would ban Mathis der Maler. Propaganda strategist Heinrich Goebbels declared Hindemith an “atonalen Geräuschemacher” (atonal noisemaker).

02_Annemarie_Kremer__Markus_Marquardt_-_Mathis_der_Maler_-_Foto_Jochen_Quast.pngAnnemarie Kremer and Markus Marquardt

With the scope of grand opera, Hindemith’s libretto nearly mythologizes the painter. Although the Cardinal protects him, Mathis joins the peasant cause and helps its leader Schwalb and his daughter Regina escape from religious persecution. Even though conflicted, Cardinal Albrecht is financially broke, so supports the wealthy. In the massive choral scenes, a book burning leads to a peasant uprising, then an aristocrat is publicly lynched, when the law ends the uprising with a public massacre.

There is also romance. Mathis has an unfulfilled love for the Protestant merchant Riedinger’s daughter Ursula, who must marry Cardinal Albrecht. They don’t, because Albrecht recognises her true convictions. After Schwalb’s death, Ursula ends up caring for the dying Regina. Mathis rejects Cardinal Albrecht’s offer for renewed protection. In the end, the painter bids farewell to all. The story and Hindemith’s industrious score make for consuming opera.

Director Jochen Biganzoli and set designer Andreas Wilkens successfully developed a concept that follows a reverse timeline of controversial 20th Century pieces of art in each of Hindemith’s Bilder. Roberto Longo, Roy Lichtenstein, Ernst Ludwig Richter, Claude Monet pass the revue. In Bild 6, Biganzoli critiques commercialisation of art in an over-the-top auction of Grünewald’s Altar.

There was a dark, sarcastic undertone that reminded of director/provocateur Calixto Bieito’s unsettling ambiences. Biganzoli portrays the powerful as corrupt, sinful hypocrites through Gestapo leather kink, and a philandering Cardinal. Also, during the peasant uprising, a body hangs dangling from his feet upside down over the stage till the scene ends. A bit too abrasive for my taste.

05_vorn_John_Daszak__Markus_Marquardt_-_Mathis_der_Maler_-_Foto_Jochen_Quast.pngJohn Daszak and Markus Marquardt

The last piece is Hindemith’s own rejected opera. After a recording with Goebbels speaks out against (I assumed) Hindemith at the beginning of Bild 7, the final statement involves a stage with a missing orchestra. The topic hit close to home with the current lack of political support for orchestras. This felt particularly urgent concerning the EUYO.

Markus Marquardt triumphed in the technically demanding lead. He offered a human take of the womanizing heroic artist. With his first aria “Sonniges Land” Marquardt demonstrated his wide range and stamina. Such power! His conflicted duet with the fierce Kremer enflamed Bild 3. They produced the highlight of the evening in a battle of frustrated romance presented with refined agita and impossible stamina, resulting in exhilarating chemistry. In Bild 5, Kremer had another showstopper with Daszak. Utterly displeased with the Cardinal, Kremer fired up her voice matching Young’s orchestral intensity.

Herbert Lippert put down a decent Schwalb with a depth that generated a protective vibe. Emily Dorn distinguished Schwalb’s daughter Regina with a resilient vibrato that perforated the orchestra’s volume, while retaining a vulnerable, touching, and utterly virtuous presence.

Simone Young made her debut at Semperoper. She produced a muscular sound from the Dresden Staatskapelle. While Hindemith’s score contains drab passages, Young produced a relentless momentum. Sometimes her forte fortissimo conducting led to overpowering volume that occasionally eclipsed the vocals, though most of the time, the soloists fit in Young’s musical fold.

The Saxony State Opera Chorus Dresden proved an indispensable presence. Its epic intensity increased with each Bild. Perfectly prepared by Jörn Hinnerk Andresen with an undeniable vocal zeal, the choir moved through defeat, rage, and madness. Stamping and swaying, Sylvia Zygouris’ choir choreography gave an extra surge to their stage intensity.

This demanding production of Hindemith at the Semperoper should be commended for its audacity. This rarity must be brought back, because opera fanatics deserve to hear such an intelligent and provocative production of Hindemith’s masterpiece. Impressive how the Semperoper made such a big risk pay off.

David Pinedo

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