Wednesday 19 December 2012

Mathis der Maler, Theater an der Wien, 16 December 2012

All images: Wener Kmetitsch
Theater an der Wien, Vienna
Mathis – Wolfgang Koch
Albrecht of Brandenburg – Kurt Streit
Riedinger – Franz Grundheber
Ursula – Manuela Uhl
Hans Schwalb – Raymond Very
Regina – Katerina Tretyakova
Lorenz von Pommersfelden – Martin Snell
Wolfgang Capito – Charles Reid
Sylvester von Schaumberg – Oliver Ringelhahn
Truchseß von Waldburg – Ben Connor
Countess Helfenstein – Magdalena Anna Hofmann
Countess Helfenstein’s Piper – Andrew Owens
Count Helfenstein – Florian Emberger
Peasants – Florian Emberger, Adam Blažo, Ladislav Hallon, Ladislav Podkamenský, Matús Tráviniček

Keith Warner (director)
Johan Engels (set designs)
Emma Ryott (costumes)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)

Slovak Philharmonic Choir (chorus mistress: Blanka Juhaňaková)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Bertrand de Billy (conductor)
Slovak Philarmonic Choir, Countess Helfenstein (Magdalena Anna Hofmann)
How pleasurable to be ending – well, almost, for a visit to Robert le diable at Covent Garden still beckons – my operatic year on such a high note! The Theater an der Wien is now generally acknowledged to offer substantially more interesting fare than the Vienna State Opera, the latter’s great orchestra notwithstanding. Indeed, during a sojourn of just over a fortnight in Vienna, the Staatsoper could summon up nothing that was not of the Italian nineteenth century; the only prospect I could even begin to face was La bohème, until I realised that remained in a production by the ultra-vulgarist, Berlusconi-supporting Franco Zeffirelli. Not for the first time I was led to fond remembrance of Boulez’s great clarion call from a 1967 interview with Der Spiegel: ‘To a theatre in which mostly repertoire pieces are performed one can only with the greatest difficulty bring a modern opera – it is unthinkable. The most expensive solution would be to blow the opera houses into the air. But do you not think that that might also be the most elegant solution?’ The Theater an der Wien has avoided the deep, one is almost tempted to say insurmountable, problems arising from a repertoire system by adopting instead the stagione principle: no pointless, barely rehearsed revivals – if indeed ‘revival’ can remotely be considered the mot juste for Zeffirelli et al. – of moribund works and productions, but bespoke productions, such as this new staging of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler: hardly, I admit, a ‘modern opera’, but a great, unaccountably neglected, work from a century that still receives bizarrely short shrift from so many houses. The results, at least on this occasion, spoke for themselves. (Exemplary programmes are produced too.)

Albrecht of Brandenburg (Kurt Streit)
Hindemith remains a deeply unfashionable composer. To a certain extent that is not undeserved. His absurd claims about ‘tonality’ as a natural force, ‘like gravity’, do not help; history has undoubtedly proved Schoenberg right. The concept of Gebrauchsmusik, even if more sophisticated than one might expect, likewise remains problematical at best, many would say untenable. Moreover, some of the accusations hurled at Hindemith’s music are not unfair in particular cases: there is a good amount of grey, even turgid stuff to throw out as bathwater, before we arrive at fine babies such as Mathis, surely the composer’s most singular masterpiece. Its message of an artist, Matthias Grünewald, painter of the Isenheim Altarpiece, disillusioned by attempts to involve himself in politics during the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War, who ultimately has his artistic gift restored to him, has particular resonance, even within the context of ‘artist operas’, given Hindemith’s own plight during the Third Reich. It is far more than that, of course; there is (religious) fanaticism; there are love and renunciation; there is artistic patronage in all its complexity; there are artistic inspiration and the lack thereof;  there is the fascinating, compromised yet wise figure of Albrecht of Brandenburg. In a sense, as one of my Twitter followers remarked the other day, it is everything Pfitzner’s Palestrina ought to have been, yet is not. (The latter work retains a cult, which seems to be not entirely dissociated from the composer’s repellent nationalist politics.)

Bertrand de Billy gave a more impressive performance than I have previously heard from him. Whereas his Mozart has tended towards the anonymous, this was a powerful reading which, courtesy of tirelessly committed playing from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, penetrated to the core of Hindemith’s musical imagination. What can readily sound like Busoni without the sense of fantasy – in a sense, though only in one sense, it is a bit like that – here resounded with dignity, counterpoint and form defiantly present, reasserting their presence against musical philistinism whether of the 1930s or of today, and allied more closely than some of Hindemith’s previous operatic work, to dramatic requirements. Choral singing, from the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, was of the highest standard throughout: weighty yet never in the slightest diffuse, and capable of impressive dynamic contrast and shading.

The cast was strong too, in some cases very strong indeed. Wolfgang Koch proved an heroic Mathis. If occasionally his voice tired towards the end, that fitted perfectly well with the drama. Otherwise, his multi-faceted portrayal – kindly, thoughtful, tortured – was as impressive for its verbal acuity as for its command of musical line. It is, quite simply, a privilege to hear so committed a performance as his. Kurt Streit was an unfailingly intelligent Albrecht. It could not be said that his vocal performance was always the most beautiful to listen to, but dramatic concerns were of greater importance. Franz Grundheber seems incapable of growing old; his Riedinger, the wealthy Protestant on whose money Albrecht is dependent, was just as well observed as any other performance I have heard from him. Manuela Uhl, as his daughter Ursula, and Katerina Tretyakova as Regina, daughter of the peasant leader, Hans Schwalb (a performance of evident conviction from Raymond Very), both offered at times ravishing vocal performances matched by fine stage presence and sense. All of the ‘smaller’ roles were well taken, right down to the individual peasants who made the shocking rape scene (Countess Helfenstein its victim, harrowingly portrayed by Magdalena Anna Hofmann) truly come to life.

Mathis (Wolfgang Koch) and demons
Keith Warner’s production furthered that too, of course. That particular scene, in which the production arguably goes further than the libretto, acquired its power as much through the striking attention afforded every member of the peasant mob as through the idea itself. As a turning point in which Mathis is impelled back towards art, it is crucial – and certainly proved so here. Class hatred – the term may be anachronistic for the sixteenth century, but so, by definition, is a subsequent artistic treatment – and mass psychosis did their work, just as they did when Hindemith was writing. Much the same could be said of the book-burning we witness. At the centre of the production lies an extraordinary giant statue of Christ crucified, prefiguring the altarpiece to come, taking form during the mistily staged Prelude, piercing our consciousness during the action just as its agonising nail does Christ’s foot, and subsequently coming apart, inducing and encompassing both Mathis’s fateful dream and the artwork itself. The sixth-scene dream, in which, confronted not only by figures from his – and the opera’s past – and a chorus of demons, but also by Saints Anthony and Paul, the latter in Albrecht’s guise, is staged with a fine eye both to the torment and to the potential consolation afforded by artistic creation, even during, perhaps especially during, times of political torment. The insanity of the dream-world, flailing demons and all – a splendidly writhing contribution from the Statisterie des Theater an der Wien – gains focus and eventually direction from the Pauline intervention. (Surely this is St Paul’s sole operatic appearance to date? I should gladly be corrected.) Mathis is thereby enable to do his work and prepare for death: a sobering and, in the best sense, ‘authentic’ vision.

All considered, then, this was a triumph for the Theater an der Wien, for the estimable artists engaged, and not least for Hindemith himself. Cameras were present in the theatre; let us hope a DVD may be in the offing.  Any chance, perhaps, of Busoni’s Doktor Faust?