Thursday, 31 January 2008

Cardillac, Opéra National de Paris, 29 January 2008

Opéra Bastille

Cardillac – Franz Grundheber
The Daughter – Angela Denoke
The Officer – Christopher Ventris
The Lady – Hannah Esther Minutillo
The Cavalier – Charles Workman
The Gold Dealer – Roland Bracht
Leader of the Prévôté – David Bizic

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris

Kazushi Ono (conductor)

Winfried Maczewski (chorus master)

André Engel (producer)
Nicky Rieti (designer)
Chantel de La Coste Messelière (costumes)
André Diot (lighting)
Frédérique Chauveaux and Françoise Grès (choreographers)

Perhaps only Paris could turn in so stylish a production of the terminally unfashionable Hindemith. When I saw this in 2006, I thought that the Opéra National de Paris had a hit on its hands, and I have no reason to revise my judgement upon its revival. Cardillac, based on Das Fräulein von Scuderi, a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, is a work imbued with Neue Sachlichkeit. It nevertheless looks forward to the chief preoccupation of works such as Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt, namely the artist’s role in society. The musical style, however, remains very much of the 1920s: for the most part resolutely anti-sentimental and with a duly ‘objective’ instrumental polyphony characteristic, perhaps misconceived but genuinely held, of that age’s conception of Bach.

Kazushi Ono seemed very much on Hindemith’s wavelength in this respect. Anxious to relieve music of its subservience to the text Hindemith – somewhat like Busoni and even Berg in this respect – insisted upon small closed instrumental forms, following their own musical imperatives. Whilst not dissociated from what was going on onstage, Ono ensured that the motorised rhythms and the manifold polyphonic strands were possessed of their own motivation. His reading may not have evinced throughout quite the rhythmic drive – there were a few occasions when the tension sagged ever so slightly – brought to the score by Kent Nagano during the original production, but this is a minor criticism. The orchestra responded superbly: incisive and possessed of just the right wind- and percussion-dominated sound. (The strings, especially violins, are very few in number, to impart an almost Weill-like quality to the music.) A sure command of idiom was unfailingly apparent.

Franz Grundheber proved a charismatic Cardillac. His tone, his attention to the text, and equally importantly, bearing on stage were all exemplary. For the drama to be of consequence, one needs to believe in his tortured, Jekyll-and-Hyde conflict between his work and everything else, his daughter included. One certainly did in this case. Angela Denoke was every bit as impressive as his daughter; it is difficult to imagine her command of line and tone in this role bettered. As her suitor, Christopher Ventris also impressed – more so in the second than in the third act – although he was arguably outshone by Charles Workman in the smaller tenor role of the dashing Cavalier. The stage and vocal chemistry between the latter and the alluring Hannah Esther Minutillo as the Lady was an object lesson in such matters. One could all too well understand why he felt compelled to follow her fateful entreaty to procure for her ‘the finest object Cardillac ever produced,’ and why she in her turn was only too eager to await him in her bedroom. The chorus, attentively directed and choreographed, was every bit as impressive in its vocal blend and diction. It plays a crucial role – partly a homage to Bach’s Passions and Handel’s oratorios? – both at the opening and during the final scene, thus framing the action within a broader social context. It was no mean achievement for almost every word to be distinguishable, all the more impressive given the fullness of choral tone and the quantity of stage business.

The production was, as I have already mentioned, extremely stylish. The updating – to roughly the time of composition – worked well enough, although there were occasions, such as the beginning of the third act, when it became a little confusing. Nevertheless, the general impression of gold-fuelled opulence was most persuasive, as were all aspects of the Personenregie. The sets and costumes were lavish, which seemed not an extravagance but a necessary attribute of the action. A welcome aspect of the production was that it helped to remove any lingering prejudices one might have entertained about dryness or worthiness on the composer’s part. This was splendid musical theatre and must be accounted a triumph for Gérard Mortier’s house and company.

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