Cardillac: Es ist ein schönes Ding, das Gold

Everyone at the Wiener Staatsoper can breathe a sigh of relief: the first new production premiere of the Meyer/Welser-Möst regime is a success.  Hindemith’s opera isn’t easy to love, but it’s hard to imagine a more effective production of it than this one.  A few missteps aside, Sven-Eric Bectholf’s expressionist staging and a solid cast made this simultaneously overheated and distant work a compelling morality play, and Franz Welser-Möst’s loud orchestra made it an exciting one.  Pure gold?  Close, at least.

Hindemith-Lion, Cardillac (1926 version).  Wiener Staatsoper, 17/10/10.  New production premiere directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf with sets by Rolf Gilttenberg, costumes by Marianne Glittenberg, lights by Jürgen Hoffmann.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Juha Uusitalo (Cardillac), Juliane Banse (Die Tochter), Herbert Lippert (Der Offizier), Ildiko Raimondi (Die Dame), Matthias Klink (Der Kavaliere), Tomasz Konieczny (Der Goldhändler).

Despite having had to play lots of it, I’ve never warmed to Hindemith’s music, and this opera isn’t really to my taste.  It is intentionally lacking in sympathetic characters, unsubtle, and, while loud and aggressive, emotionally distant from the happenings onstage (only Cardillac gets a real name).  That would be the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (new objectivity) movement.  1926 is a bit early to give music this label, but you can see the signs, and Bechtolf goes on about it in the program book interview.  Apart from some hats, the Romanticism of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s source story, Die Fräulein von Scuderi, is nowhere to be found in the opera or in this production.

My preeeecioussssss..

Hindemith and Ferdinand Lion’s version of the plot, in brief: people in Louis XIV’s Paris are being murdered.  All of them had recently purchased something from the meticulous goldsmith Cardillac.  Cardillac’s daughter wants to run off with a man, he says whatever, I still got my gold.  Unfortunately the would-be son-in-law (the Officer) buys something from Cardillac before they elope.  Of course, the murderer is Cardillac himself, who can’t let go of any of his creations (but apparently armed robbery just doesn’t cut it).  But he is caught in the act before killing the Officer, and while the Officer initially refuses to identify his father-in-law as the culprit, the mob gets the idea and Cardillac is done for.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production finds the perfect visualization of this score.  As mentioned earlier here, his source is silent film.  This shows up in the black-and-white color palette (the only other colors are gold, of course, and a few bits of red) and in the stiff, stylized gestures of the whole cast (well, most of them).  The numbers of the score naturally become separate scenes.  Like silent film is drained of its sound and color, the naive, non-psychological opera and its detached music are missing something: a third dimension, an aura.  The primitive, stiff visual language makes the music more potent rather than less, giving it a concentrated and economic energy.

The chorus is an indistinguishable, violent black mass in stovepipe hats and capes against an abstract black and white cityscape.  Cardillac’s workshop is a bright golden room at the end of a long tunnel.  His death transfigures him into a a gold statue; his creations are all that is left of him.  The King appears in miniature, accompanied by a hulking Nosferatu figure. There are a few problem spots: the new court established to catch the murderer is associated with dancers wielding briefcases that burst into flames, some black body-stocking dancers slinking around looked more silly than scary, and I could have done without the gold-light outline of a top hat at the end. And I couldn’t help but thinking of the gold-painted living statue Mozarts on Kärtnerstrasse upon Cardillac’s transformation.  But these all go by quickly, and overall the concept is brilliant.  (It is not an entirely new thing for Bechtolf, check out his Lulu, also conducted by Welser-Möst.)

If this opera has a heart, it’s Juliane Banse’s fragile Tochter.  She made everyone else’s gestures look amateur, finding great expression in a limited range of movement (her bio says she trained as a dancer, I can believe it).  She also got most of the opera’s most delicate music, including a gentle opening scene and a major role in the pentatonic-ish finale, all of which was sung with lyric sweetness and natural ease.

Herbert Lippert also found great success as the Offizier, also with a lyric voice that rose to the climaxes, for the most part.  All of the cast was on the lyric side, actually, which would not have been a problem had Franz Welser-Möst kept the (fairly lightly-scored) orchestra down more, but just about everyone got drowned out at some point or another.  Juha Uusitalo’s voice made a bigger impression here than it does at the Met, but he still lacked variety of color and his Cardillac was still a black hole of presence.  He also did not seem to have internalized the same gestural language as everyone else.  Alas.  A great Cardillac could have tipped this production from very good to super.

In smaller roles, Matthias Klink and Ildiko Raimondi as an early Cardillac victim and his ladyfriend nobly fought the orchestra and slinked around with great style.  Tomasz Konieczny was once more the loudest low male voice onstage as the Gold Dealer.  The excessive orchestra sounded terrific, playing with surprising violence and bite, contrary to their usually-genteel style.

Judging from the number of personalities other people in the standing room were pointing out (I didn’t recognize most of the names), this was quite the social event.  It got a very enthusiastic ovation at the end, particularly for Lippert, Welser-Möst, and the production team.  No boos that I could hear.  A very good night for the Staatsoper.

There are four more performances: October 20, 23, 27, and 30.  The 23rd will be broadcast live on ORF.
Photos copyright APA.

Next: I bought a ticket for Tuesday’s Salonen/Mahler Philharmoniker concert, which in the meantime has metamorphosed into a Welser-Möst/Bruckner concert.   Nothing against Welser-Möst, but that’s a bait-and-switch, Philharmoniker.  You know I hate Bruckner.  Not sure if I will blog about this one or just grumble about it privately.

Also, did someone say there’s a Jonas Kaufmann recital at the Konzerthaus on Wednesday?  OH YES THERE IS.

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  1. Zerbinetta,

    Your review of 'Cardillac' brings a question to mind:

    Have you ever met anyone who greatly prefers to experience opera by listening to complete audio recordings at home as opposed to seeing the whole theatrical event in an opera house ?


  2. Hi Marcy,
    Yes, a few, though since I mostly meet other opera fans at opera houses, not too many. That's probably not the right place to look.

    Do you mean that you (I assume?) prefer the audio because you don't care about the visuals or you prefer the opera at home rather than in a theater? Or both?

    I think this is often some extent a generational thing. I grew up with videos as well as audio, and have always considered an audio recording of an opera to be in some way incomplete. And as someone who has participated in a lot of theater I love the communal aspects of live performance. But I can understand the audio-only thing to some extent, though I don't share it.