My guess is that Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is an opera most opera amateurs have heard of but which comparatively few have actually seen. The video release of a 2012 production at Theater an der Wien directed by Keith Warner is therefore very welcome.
It’s an odd opera in many ways. It was inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece and its (presumed) artist Mathis (or Matthias) Grünewald. It’s dramatically convoluted too with threads that are not easy to interpret. Or at least I think so. I don’t buy the idea that it’s simply “about” the artist struggling to find his place in a repressive society though I can see how one could conclude that a work written in exile from Nazi Germany has to be just that.
So let’s look at the work which is constructed in seven loosely linked tableaux. It’s the 1520s. The Peasants War rages in Germany. Luther is Luthering. Mathis is just finishing up a year’s working retreat in a monastery when the wounded leader of the peasants, Schwalb, and his daughter, Regina, arrives fleeing the Imperial forces. Mathis helps them escape. Meanwhile in Mainz Lutherans and Catholics are squabbling. The cardinal archbishop Albrecht arrives with (presumably expensive) relics of St. Martin. He’s broke from beautifying the city and cathedral which seems his only concern. The leader of the Imperial troops accuses Mathis of treason. Albrecht protects him. The Lutherans plot to persuade Albrecht to become a secular ruler and marry the richest merchant’s daughter, Ursula, thus relieving his money problems. Mathis goes off to join the revolting peasants.
Mathis witnesses the brutal murder of Count Helfenstein by the peasants but manages to rescue the countess. He is disgusted by the peasants’ behaviour and realises that they have no “project” beyond revenge on the bosses. He cannot better the lot of the brutalized who will always be brutal. Schwalb tries to organise the peasants to oppose the Imperial forces but they are not much more than a disorganised mob. Scwalb is killed leaving Regina with Mathis who, in turn, is saved from the troops by the Countess. Meanwhile Albrecht has refused to go along with the Lutherans’ plans, resolving to stay loyal to the Church and live in poverty if needs be.
Deep in the forest Mathis has a vision in which he relives the temptations of St. Anthony but the lure of money, fame, sensual pleasure etc cannot lure him away from art. (All the temptors are incarnations of characters previously encountered). Eventually St. Paul (Albrecht) persuades Mathis that he must dedicate himself to art and Mathis, Regina and Ursula appear to set up house together while Mathis produces masterpieces including the Isenheim Altarpiece. Mathis, worn out by his labours, dies.
So what are we to make of these various elements. Clearly, one message is that the artist’s duty; to society and to God, is to make art and not be distracted by politics, theological disputes etc. One could go further. Redemption is making art. The toll of intense creativity is a form of martyrdom. This all seems like a pretty quietist view in the face of the Nazi regime. Don’t worry about the Jews, just keep composing? The common people are too horrid to be worth fighting for and ideological squabbles are ridiculous? Are we supposed to see in the linking of the horrors of the Peasants’ War and the (so far) relatively civilized dispute over Luther’s ideas a foreshadowing of the Thirty Years War? I don’t have answers to many of these questions. Nor, I think, does Keith Warner, whose production tells the story straightforwardly, while leaving some very real visual ambiguity.
Central to Warner’s sets; designed by Johan Engels, is a three dimensional representation of the crucified Christ from the Isenheim Altarpiece (I strongly advise having a very close look at a good quality picture of the piece before watching the opera). It’s in pieces and the pieces reconfigure as the tableaux progress. Now central to Grünewald’s image of Christ are the wounds and some really rather ghastly sores (Isenheim treated lepers and the like). Lighting is used to emphasise different elements of the Christ as the scenes demand. Against and on that general frame, and using a rotating stage to advance from one tableau to the next with minimal fuss, the action plays out in stylised modern dress except for the St. Anthony scene which is almost like something from Bosch with the added use of scrims to alter degrees of focus. Mostly the direction focusses on the characters and Warner gets really good acting performances pretty much across the board. It’s straightforward and it works. There’s an interesting touch in the final scene too. It plays out against a background of tourists viewing the Altarpiece but it’s blank.
Musically the piece is really interesting. I was expecting something much more abrasively atonal but in fact Hindemith mixes atonalism where appropriate with some highly lyrical patches and some importation of folk melodies. It’s tempting to compare it to Richard Strauss but it really doesn’t sound at all like Strauss though the formal similarities are obvious. Maybe the orchestral writing is more interesting than the solo vocal lines but there are some pretty good ensemble numbers.
The key performances come from Wolfgang Koch as Mathis and Kurt Streit as Albrecht. They both sing and act really well. Both really convey the psychological arc of their characters and there’s some really lovely singing at times, especially fro Streit. The laies are quite touching too. Manuela Hill is a sympathetic but dignified Ursula, especially good in the “marriage scene” with Albrecht. Katherina Tretyakova is a very sweet and beguiling Regina. There are no weal links in the supporting cast and it was fun to see my old mate Charles Reid as Albrecht’s aide Capito. The only other time I’ve seen Chuck is in the very weird Salzburg Ascanio in Alba. The Slovak Philharmonic Choir has a ton of work to do as soldiers, peasants, citizens of Mainz, demons and much else. They do it very well. The orchestra is the Wiener Symphoniker and they too are very good. Bertrand de Billy conducts highly competently.
The video is by Peter and Paul Landsmann. It’s pretty well done. It’s an awkward production to film as much of it is quite dark and there are moving parts but I think they cope pretty well aided by a very decent picture on Blu-ray. The only soundtrack is PCM stereo but it’s good and I didn’t miss having a surround track. There are no extras on the disk but there’s a good interview with Warner and Engels in the booklet plus synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
This is an opera that isn’t much performed and it’s well worth seeing. This disk is a pretty good introduction.