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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Mathis der Maler: opera in seven tableaux, libretto by the composer (1935)
Mathis: Wolfgang Koch (baritone)
Albrecht von Brandenburg: Kurt Streit (tenor)
Riedinger: Franz Grundheber (bass-baritone)
Ursula: Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Hans Schwalb: Raymond Very (tenor)
Regina: Katerina Tretyakova (soprano)
Lorenz von Pommersfelden: Martin Snell (bass)
Wolfgang Capito: Charles Reid (tenor)
Sylvester von Schaumberg: Olver Ringelhahn (tenor)
Truchseß von Waldburg: Ben Connor (baritone)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Wiener Symphoniker/Bertrand de Billy
Stage director: Keith Warner
Rec. December 2012, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
Booklet included. Subtitles in German, English, French, Korean and Japanese
NTSC 16:9. PCM stereo. Region 0
NAXOS 2.110691-92 DVD [2 discs: 190 mins]

Although the symphony which Hindemith incorporated in his opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the painter) is the best-known of his orchestral works, the opera itself is not performed as often as its merits and importance would justify. It is one in a succession of German operas whose theme is the role of the arts in society. This began with Wagner’s Meistersinger, continued with Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Busoni’s Doktor Faust, and Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers is a more recent example. I have seen it once, when it was powerfully conducted at Covent Garden by Esa-Pekka Salonen but in a hideously inappropriate production by Peter Sellars (it featured machine guns and television sets) which was never revived.

Hindemith wrote it during the rise of the Nazis, and book-burnings, social unrest and atrocities all figure in the opera as they did in life at the time. Such events invite the question: should the artist engage in political action or stick to what he is good at? However, Hindemith needed a distancing device to handle this explosive material, and a story. He found it in the figure of the painter Mathias Grünewald (1470-1528), best known for the Isenheim altarpiece, a polyptych famous for its image of the crucified Christ pitted by sores. It also includes the scene of the temptation of St Anthony, which Hindemith drew on in the opera. The altarpiece was a great influence on twentieth-century expressionist painters and its location in Alsace, whose ownership alternated between Germany and France, made it a bone of contention and an object of great public interest.

For the story, Hindemith set the opera at the time of the peasants’ revolt, in 1524-5. This was also the time of the early Reformation in the church. Mathis helps the peasant leader Schwalb and his daughter Regina to escape from pursuing officials and so gets into trouble with his employer, the Cardinal Archbishop Albrecht. However, Albrecht is also his friend and lets him off but is forced to authorise the burning of Lutheran books. Albrecht has money problems and is advised to go over to the Lutheran side in the church disputes, renounce the priesthood, become a secular ruler and marry Ursula, the daughter of the wealthy Lutheran merchant Riedinger. She is in love with Mathis, but he says he is too old for her – shades of Sachs and Eva in Meistersinger. Mathis joins the rebels but is horrified by the atrocities they commit, the murder of a count and the rape of his countess, whom he manages subsequently to protect. Schwalb is killed and Mathis becomes a father figure to Regina, who, however, is ailing and dies. Albrecht decides not to marry Ursula but to live as a hermit. Mathis has a nightmare in which he sees himself as St Antony tempted by demons, as in one panel of the Isenheim altarpiece. He withdraws from political action and returns to painting. Most of the characters are historical figures but the story is Hindemith’s own.

Hindemith wrote the libretto himself, the first time he had done so, though this was his seventh opera. I think it is on the whole a very good libretto; its faults are that it is rather wordy and there are, if anything, too many ideas in it, surely a fault on the right side. The music is deliberately written in an accessible style, departing from his earlier expressionist manner and not yet afflicted by the competent but dull note-spinning which affects some of his later works. The vocal lines are largely tonal, and the characters mostly well contrasted, though the parts of Ursula and Regina are arguably too similar. There are few arias but some fine duets and the choral writing is really impressive. There are some longeurs, and I noted a few discreet cuts. Still, it is an impressive opera about real issues. The Nazis banned it and the premiere took place in Zürich.

The cast is strong. Wolfgang Koch, always looking grizzled and dishevelled, is a powerful Mathis. Kurt Streit as Albrecht is really impressive both as actor and singer. The veteran Franz Grundheber is a convincing Riedinger, and Charles Reid a splendidly slimy Capito, Albrecht’s adviser. Manuela Uhl’s Ursula is expressive but a bit shrill. Katerina Tretyakova makes what she could of Regina, as does Magdalena Anna Hoffmann of Countess Helfenstein. The Slovak Philharmonic Choir makes a really threatening crowd of peasants. Bertrand de Billy conducts with warmth and energy and keeps the work moving.

The set is dominated by an enormous three-dimensional replica of the suffering Christ from the altarpiece. This is mounted on a wooden frame which is turned round for the different scenes. There are occasional other props, such as in Mathis’ study as a skeleton hanging from one piece of it and a broken-down bed. The director, Keith Warner, gives an interview in the booklet; it appears that following Hindemith’s own perfectly clear directions in the libretto was not an option. The result is that the action is sometimes difficult to follow, as in the scene of the book-burning or the complicated scene involving the Count and Countess. I was able to follow the work with the libretto, as provided in the Kubelik audio recording, which gives the original stage directions, but others might well be confused. The costumes are nearly all modern and drab, apart from Albrecht’s magnificent cardinal’s robes, on his first appearance only.

The sound and picture quality are very good, despite coming from a live performance as far back as 2012. The booklet, in German and English, provides a synopsis and the interview I mentioned but no biographies of the performers. I wonder why it has taken so long for this production to make it to DVD, especially since there is no other DVD of the work available. It is also available in Blu-ray and will shortly be issued as an audio CD on the Capriccio label. Other CD versions include the afore-mentioned Kubelik, which dates from 1977 and has Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, a 2007 version from Simone Young and a 2010 one from Gerd Albrecht. Despite the oddities of the production, the strengths of this performance outweigh the weaknesses and, since it is currently the only version on DVD, it has the field to itself.

Stephen Barber

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