For some, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. For others, it’s a three-hour debate on art, politics and theology better experienced in the “symphony” derived from the score at the request of Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1934, a year before the official completion of the opera. This magnificent 2012 staging from Theater an der Wien should go a long way towards convincing the doubters of the work’s dramatic merits thanks to Keith Warner’s insightful production, Johan Engel’s extraordinary set, Bertrand de Billy’s determined advocacy in the pit, and commanding performances from Wolfgang Koch as the conscience-stricken painter Matthias Grünewald and Kurt Streit as his devoted patron, the unpredictable Prince-Bishop Albrecht von Brandenburg.

Hindemith

The opera was written in mid 1930s Germany, and many have read the protagonist’s struggle to define his role as an artist in a turbulent society as Hindemith’s reaction to his own political climate. But while performances in Germany were duly banned by the Nazis, it was more for the composer’s modernist compositional idiom than because of the subject matter. In fact, the piece operates on many levels. Taken historically, its sweep includes the early-16th-century German Peasants Revolt, the simultaneous rise of Lutheranism, and the impact of a newly emerging bourgeoisie on politics and artistic patronage. How can the artist honour God while also playing an active and compassionate role in society, it asks? As man and artist, Mathis repeatedly refuses the ivory tower offered him by his wealthy and well-meaning patron, choosing instead to take an active part in the tribulations of the oppressed peasantry. Ultimately, the creation of his greatest work – the famous Isenheim Altarpiece – is both a representation of the agony of the crucified Christ and a meditation on the sufferings of his own society.

Warner’s faultless and perceptive staging is set against Engel’s vivid backdrop, a gigantic, 3-D representation of Grünewald’s tortured Christ, his scabrous, twisted limbs, rendered in shocking sculptural detail. The revolving set, intricately lit by Mark Jonathan, rotates, fragments and re-unites the agonised body parts. Each time we are forced to contemplate the suffering of Jesus on the cross in the light of the travails of Hindemith’s careworn cast of human beings caught up in world of war, persecution and death. 

By setting the action in the first half of the 20th century, Warner draws our attention to parallels with the period of the opera’s gestation without ever screaming Nazis or forcing the issue down our throats. Naturalistic acting is neatly juxtaposed with more abstract imagery, like the glass cases full of grotesquely preserved saints in Albrecht’s study and the masterful recreation of Grünewald’s Bosch-like Temptation of St Anthony

As Mathis, Koch is superb, getting to the heart of the painter’s dilemma with less-is-more acting underpinned by an overwhelming sense of world-weariness. Vocally, his potent, occasionally gruff baritone works well, suggesting both a man of the people and a figure with a great capacity for compassion. His relationships with Albrecht, Regina and Ursula are detailed and touchingly defined. Streit, too, offers a warmly sympathetic portrait that contrasts Albrecht’s humanity with his fatal political fickleness and his weakness for spending money on art. His bright and striking tenor is most effective in hushed, intimate moments when the character’s gentleness and benevolence is to the fore, less effective on the louder top notes where it can become querulous.

The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Raymond Very as the peasant leader Hans Schwalb who challenges the potential complacency of Mathis’s artistic withdrawal, Franz Grundheber as the stolid, Lutheran burgher Riedinger and Martin Snell as the pompous Catholic spokesman Pommersfelden. Manuela Uhl’s light, nuanced soprano makes her ideal for Ursula, Schwalb’s long-suffering daughter. Katerina Tretyakova as Riedinger’s daughter Regina communicates the woman’s inner strength though the voice is light on colour.

The Wiener Symphoniker play well, and the always impressive de Billy has the measure of Hindemith’s score. The recorded sound, however, is a little dull and light on depth. A pity as the camera work and film direction (Peter and Paul Landsmann) are outstanding.

In short, Mathis de Maler is an undoubted masterpiece and this involving production demands to be seen, heard and inwardly digested. It, and Hindemith, have much to say. 

Composer: Hindemith
Work: Mathis der Maler
Performers: Wolfgang Koch, Kurt Streit, Wiener Symphoniker, Bertrand de Billy
Label: Naxos 2110691-92 (2DVD), NBD0130V (Blu-ray)

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