SS Guards Patrol, Tanks Rumble in ‘Mathis’ at Bastille: Review

Adolf Hitler was disgusted: A naked soprano in a bathtub praising the joys of central heating was definitely not his idea of a truly German opera.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), the composer of “Neues vom Tage,” or News of the Day, which premiered at the Berlin Kroll Opera in 1929, made a bad impression on the future Fuehrer.

“Mathis der Maler,” or Mathis the Painter, arguably Hindemith’s masterpiece, couldn’t be staged in Nazi Germany, conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s efforts notwithstanding. Its premiere took place in 1938 in Zurich. Hindemith emigrated, became a professor at Yale and eventually a U.S. citizen.

This is the first production of “Mathis” at the Paris Opera. It’s also Christoph Eschenbach’s house debut.

The opera’s hero is Mathis Neithart (ca. 1460-1528), popularly known as Mathias Gruenewald, the creator of the great Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. Little is known about his life: He was employed by two successive archbishops of Mainz and seems to have sympathized with the 1524-26 Peasants’ Revolt and the new Lutheran doctrine.

Hindemith, who wrote his own libretto, did extensive research: Most of his characters are historical figures. Yet his theme -- the doubts and struggles of the artist in a period of political upheaval -- was certainly topical. For those slow on the uptake, he included a scene in which Lutheran books are collected to be burned, an unmistakable allusion to the Nazi book burning of May 1933.

Red Flags

Olivier Py, the director, and Pierre-Andre Weitz, the set and costume designer, couldn’t resist the temptation to stress the Nazi connection: SS guards with German shepherds strut the stage while a tank moves menacingly in the background.

Are we to understand that the Catholics who refused to break away from Rome were Fascists? Another anachronism is the red flags of the rebels: In reality, they carried flags with their emblem, the Bundschuh, or peasant boot.

Most of the time, Py and Weitz enliven the scene with their usual shtick -- constantly moving, multistoried metal structures -- sometimes to dazzling effect. The Isenheim Altarpiece appears only in silhouette during the prelude.

Following a current trend, a silent character has been added, a half-naked angel with red wings who busies himself around the master, a hint at one of the panels of the altarpiece.

Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, dismissed Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.”

Orchestral Nuances

That was nonsense. The musical language of “Mathis” is deeply embedded in the German tradition, including counterpoint, Gregorian chant and medieval folk tunes. The opera does have longueurs and dry patches; it’s more a series of loosely connected tableaux than a gripping drama.

Eschenbach does wonders to bring the difficult score to life. The sound of the orchestra is always transparent and finely nuanced.

Not all the singers are top-drawer, yet the three main parts are in competent hands: Matthias Goerne, though short of heroic heft, performs the title role with all the subtlety of the lieder singer he is.

Scott MacAllister is an almost over articulate Archbishop Albrecht, the painter’s patron. He also sings the role in the recent recording of the work by the Hamburg Staatsoper.

The best vocal performance is by Melanie Diener as Ursula, the Protestant heiress who’s in love with Mathis and whom the Lutherans use as bait to lure the cash-strapped archbishop into their camp. Here’s a Bruennhilde in the making. Rating: ***.

“Mathis der Maler” is at the Bastille Opera, Paris, through Dec. 6.

Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****             Outstanding
***              Good
**               Average
*                Poor
(No stars)       Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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