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Ornament and Crime

Posted by Jeremy A. Eichler  February 28, 2011 03:57 PM

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Hindemith's "Cardillac" at Opera Boston

After opening its season with a fumbled "Fidelio," Opera Boston scored a memorable success this weekend with its new staging of Hindemith's "Cardillac," a largely forgotten opera from 1926. Sunday's performance at the Cutler Majestic Theater proved not only to be an afternoon of arresting opera. It was also a pointed validation of the company's larger mission to bring deserving yet rarely heard works before the public – a mission that has seldom felt so vindicated and so essential.

That's in part thanks to its choice of repertoire. In "Cardillac," Opera Boston has fixed onto a work of historical fascination and indisputable musical quality that has nonetheless not entered the repertoire in this country.

The opera itself is an adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's story "Das Fraülein von Scuderi," pared down by librettist Ferdinand Lion to focus on the figure of the René Cardillac, a master jeweler who grows so attached to his awe-inspiring creations that he murders his customers to reclaim his work.

The score is a darkly potent alloy of modern techniques and older styles. Echoes of Bach, Verdi, and Handel impart a surface elegance and even a pathos thanks to their distance from the grisly libretto, yet the score also boasts writing of fierce expressionist intensity and an almost amorally icy detachment. The figure of Cardillac is both hero and anti-hero, worshipped by the crowds for the beauty of his work and then murdered by the same crowds once he has confessed to his crimes.

Prior to "Cardillac," Hindemith had earned a name for himself through operatic shock-mongering, with works such as the genially titled "Murder, Hope of Women" or "Das Nusch-Nuschi," mostly remembered today for the Wagner quote in its castration scene. By comparison "Cardillac" still pulses with youthful bravado but also suggests a more mature sense of reckoning with operatic conventions.

The orchestral writing is a wonder of economy and invention. Kurt Weill not long after the premiere described the goal of operatic music as "achieving a complete liberation from the stresses of the stage." But "Cardillac" already achieved this, and the music's very independence heightens the impact of the dark events unfolding before our eyes. It's for good reason that this piece first earned Hindemith one of his most devoted advocates: the conductor Otto Klemperer, who conducted "Cardillac" in Berlin and elsewhere.

Opera Boston's crisp and sleekly effective production, directed by Nic Muni, updates the action from 17th century Paris to "the near future," the first scene taking place at a chic gallery opening at which another body is discovered, to the horror of the crowd. The chorus sings well and is forcefully deployed. The sadomasochistic touches Muni inserts during Hindemith's remarkable pantomime for two flutes (Sarah Brady and Jessica Lizak) seemed gratuitous, but that scene nonetheless succeeds at conveying the interwoven layers of carnal and material desire.

The strong cast included Sol Kim Bentley singing with impressive urgency and directness the role of Cardillac's daughter, whose loyalties are torn between her lover and her father. Steven Sanders sang the Officer, whom the daughter loves, with a robust and muscular tenor. Janna Baty lavished a lustrous soprano on the role of the Lady, who lures a Cavalier to purchase jewels. Frank Kelley turned in another fine performance as the Cavalier, acting deftly and singing with a uniquely clarion timbre.

David Kravitz was vocally and dramatically persuasive as the ill-fated Gold Merchant. And at the center of this cast was the accomplished baritone Sanford Sylvan, returning to Boston to take up the title role, here with a tightly controlled performance, vocally nuanced, if also occasionally under-powered. Sylvan's Cardillac is not a two-dimensional villain but an obsessive artist for whom a veil of calm masks the grip of volcanic passions. In the pit, conductor Gil Rose led a superb, revealing account of the score.

As a whole, "Cardillac" is unmistakably a product of its times but it hardly plays like a museum piece or curiosity. The score fastens you in its grip and then leaves you pondering its meanings. It's a work that uses expressionist devices in a way to dismantle expressionism, broadcasting a cautionary tale about the perils of artistic solipsism. But most of all it's a remarkable synthetic score that draws together unlikely musical threads into a surprisingly coherent whole, providing a glimpse of what Hindemith might have become had his own conservative evolution taken a different course.

Beyond works like "Wozzeck," "Threepenny Opera" and "Mahagonny," we tend to think of the Weimar era's operatic life as a parade of short-lived and sometimes ill-considered sensations – a view in this case reinforced by Hindemith himself, who chose to completely overhaul this youthful opera in later life. But "Cardillac," in its original version, stands up as something more, as the sound of a radical young composer stepping forward, and of an era's attempt to realize a musical ideal articulated by Busoni. He called it a Young Classicality: "the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments." Where might all this have led had it been allowed to flourish? This, too, "Cardillac" leaves us wondering.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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