An expressionistic feast
C. Boerger | Columbus, OH USA | 09/30/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of what is generally considered modern avant-garde music, often I find it to be more formulaic and predictable than the traditional music it seeks to upend. For instance, how many so-called avant-garde pieces remind one of one long continuous wail, occasionally punctuated with outbursts of brass and percussion just to maintain the listener's attention? So much of contemporary music attempts to plumb the depths of despair, but in my opinion it sounds more like some well-adjusted academic's naive, overly intellectualized hypothesis of what real despair feels like, and as a result any chance for a genuinely emotional experience is blunted.
Cardillac isn't like that. This is early twentieth century fin de sicle music, full of vigor and decadence and warped beauty, dark but also thrillingly alive. Any music lover who doesn't have a problem with early Richard Strauss, or Berg, or Stravinsky, or for that matter Shostakovich or Prokofiev, in other words any of the more romantically inclined of the European groundbreakers from the first half of the last century, should find much to savor here. Hindemith was considered something of a radical in his day, but I was surprised by the accessibility of the music, the wealth of melody, how it manages to be edgy without being off-putting(a lost art these days). This music breathes!
Speaking of accessibility, I found some nods to more popular operas in the music. For instance, several of the solos(I hesitate to label them arias) display a Mozartean structure and feel(but with none of Mozart's gentility of course), and the scene that takes place inside Cardillac's workshop even contains a quote from La Traviata, a recurring motif that sounds identical to Violetta's death knell. This might be a coincidence, but it does give the more traditional listener reference points within this challenging work, making it that much more entertaining to listen to.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production for the Munich opera house is appropriately expressionistic, with angular sets, both interior and exterior, grotesque costumes, and a shortage of coruscating lighting effects. The staging is as mobile as Hindemith's music, flitting from scene to scene with nary a blip(at least that's the effect on video, there might have been set changes that were cut), with plenty of onstage action, almost constant movement, creating a cinematic impact that enhances the drama, the music, everything. Cardillac is a short enough opera as it is, but Ponnelle's attention-grabbing style makes it all the more swift and involving.
I wasn't familiar with any of the singers other than Donald McIntyre, the great Wagnerian and Straussian baritone, as the homicidal jeweler Cardillac, but really, all of the performances are top notch. In fact, I was a little disappointed that the two lovers(decked out in garish fin de sicle wardrobes) who disappear after the second scene, once the lothario in this scenario is violently dispatched in a wonderfully staged moment, weren't brought back for any curtain calls. Cardillac, as much as any opera I have seen, even Boris Godunov, is a group effort, and every performer is vital to its success. Wolfgang Sawallisch leads the orchestra in a loud, brash reading that is both lively and mercurial, like the score.
Cardillac is an odd opera in that the protagonist is a mass murderer, yet his death at the end is mourned. Hindemith was likely making a point about artists and the creative process, that the making of art, real art that is, is such a gut-wrenching process that it makes handing over the results to less appreciative minds unthinkable. Cardillac feels that the products of his craftmanship belong with him and him alone, rather than a public who is likely to desire it for less high-minded purposes(one customer buys an attractive chain just to bed a local beauty and sure enough dies for it).
No such worries here. The enthusiastic response of the Munich audience proves that Hindemith's art, especailly when it is abetted by such a satisfying production, is capable of being appreciated, and for all the right reasons."
Worthy Music, Worthy Performance, Less Worthy DVD
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 08/27/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Mr. Podessa's review covers the good points of this opera adequately. It's a new work to me; I've never heard a note of it nor looked at the score. The logical comparisons would be with Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, or Janacek's Makropoulos Case. The Hindemith stands up to such comparison musically, perhaps less complex and bold than the others but more colored and easier to hear immediately. I also like the Doktor Caligari staging; it's hard to imagine any other would be as appropriate for this post-Freudian opera. Now, however, the weakness: the sound transfer is tinny, distant, and without nuance. Even on my very good equipment, played at a volume as loud as I could bear, I felt I was listening to a car radio. What a pity! I've knocked off one star only because I'm in a cheerful mood; another time I might have knocked off two."
Patrick L. Boyle | Oakland | 05/17/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Hindemith is famous mostly as a pedagog. His compositions are not that popular. This is a pity. I think you need a little patience to "get it".
In the eighties my wife and I got to perform in a production of Cardillac at Cinnabar Opera Theater in Petaluma California. She played the soprano lead while I played the evil Magistrate. I got the part because I was the only bass they could find who could sing the high F# in the big aria. Hindemith's writing isn't very grateful to the voice or respectfull of the standard vocal conventions.
The first time we did this opera I thought the music was pure dreck. It sounded like nothing at all to me. It seemed arbitrary and noisy. However the piece held the stage well dramatically and was popular with the Northern California artsy community.
Two years later it was mounted again and my wife and I again sang. However this time the music was wonderful and profound. The cast and orchestra was nearly the same but something somehow had clicked in my head. Suddenly I "got it". What had been just noise had suddenly become music.
A few years later my wife and I were at the SF Symphony and a major Hindemith piece was played. The audience was cool and reserved - they didn't like it very much at all. But my wife and I looked at each other in that moment of joint recognition and screamed our approval. We were the only ones, it seemed, in the hall that "got it"."