Mathis der Maler

Paul Hindemith
Theater an der Wien, Austria

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Mathis der Maler, the ensemble Credit: Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien
Wolfgang Koch (Mathis) and Katerina Tretyakova (Regina) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien
Wolfgang Koch (Mathis) and Manuela Uhl (Ursula) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien
Charles Reid (Capito, seated) and Kurt Streit (Cardinal) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien

It’s hard to think, having watched Hindemith’s magnificent work in this monumental production, why it is not more often performed, in preference perhaps to many pieces by Richard Strauss or Wagner.

The plot is one of the most satisfying and intelligent in all opera, tracing events leading to the creation by Mathis Grünewald of his great altarpiece at Isenheim, with a libretto by the composer set against the background of the Reformation and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1524.

Hindemith is uncompromising in developing his main theme, the duty of an artist to serve his talent, and its moral ascendency over politics and fanaticism. So while there is the usual romantic triangle—the Lutheran Ursula loves Mathis but is expected to marry Albrecht, cardinal archbishop of Mainz—it is not of the conventional sort, as each of the parties decides to go their own ways for the loftiest of motives.

In 1934, when he composed both the opera and the symphony of the same name, the composer was already under pressure from the Nazis, having been called an ‘atonal noise-maker’ by Goebbels. What Hindemith produced was more conservative in style, with the inclusion of some elements of appropriately Germanic folk song and Lutheran chorale.

But if the regime did not find the score subversive, the text certainly was, with its message of tolerance and compassion, let alone lines like, "they stuff false doctrines down people’s throats," and the work was banned, not being performed in Germany until 1946.

Director Keith Warner and designer Johan Engels have copied the totemic figure of Grünewald’s Christ in agony from the altarpiece to create a huge figure that dominates the stage, and which is rotated for each of the seven tableaux that make up the opera. At one point, the audience is confronted by a large foot penetrated by a great, ugly nail that parallels the agonies of the characters on stage; at another, the Messiah looks down upon a scene of mayhem as the revolting peasants murder a nobleman and rape his wife.

Wolfgang Koch gives a commanding performance as Mathis, modulating his warm baritone to express perfectly the artist’s self-doubts, his short-lived enlistment in the peasant army, heroic self-sacrifice and the deep humility given only to a genius.

The most complex and interesting figure however is that of Kurt Streit’s Cardinal, urged by his counsellor Capito, immaculately played by Charles Reid, to renounce his celibacy and marry Ursula, a wealthy Protestant. The alliance would pay off Albrecht’s debts, while endorsing Lutheran doctrine that priests should be free to marry. Recognising her willingness to surrender herself for her faith, the cardinal reciprocates by vowing to remain single and lead a simpler life. In so doing, he, as much as Mathis, achieves a sort of moral nobility.

Kurt Streit does not have the plumiest of tenor voices, but his sound is haunting, and well suited to this conflicted character, duty-bound, liberal-minded, manipulating, indulgent and humble.

Manuela Uhl as Ursula and Katerina Tretyakova, who plays the peasant fugitive Regina, have such similar voices that it would be hard to tell them apart, and both sing exquisite high pianissimi to break your heart. Hindemith introduces Regina with a folksy song of a maiden at the fountain, but the vocal writing thereafter is so much alike for these two that one suspects he intended them to represent aspects of self-sacrifice within the same concept of female virtue, Ursula of constancy and purposefulness, the starry-eyed, later traumatised Regina of devotion and suffering.

The minor roles are all well crafted vocally and in stage manner, including Raymond Very as the forceful leader of the peasants, and Franz Grundheber as Ursula’s father.

Conductor Bertrand De Billy, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Choir bring out the best in a contrapuntal score, well exemplified in the lovely descant melody in the repeated Concert of Angels. Elsewhere, the writing ranges from the dark tones of war and rich passages in which the orchestration if not the harmony sounds like Alban Berg, to the simplest of melodies such as for the countess, starkly portrayed by Magdalena Anna Hofmann. There are some fine duets that drive forward the drama, the quartet in which the Cardinal considers marriage is impressive, and the following scene of Mathis’s temptations builds to a tormenting climax.

Hindemith used the prelude and the entombment scene from the final tableau in his symphony, and they both have a shimmering loveliness here in the Vienna strings.

The absence of the usual operatic resolution of the love theme and the length of the piece, just over three hours, may have contributed to the opera's lack of performances. Nor is it an unflawed masterpiece—the earlier scenes are not uniformly inspired and I find the writing for male chorus rather unexciting.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in a piece which by 20th century standards is musically accessible, rich in invention, and which carries a lofty message about the importance of artistic endeavour, such as should be appreciated by any true opera lover.

The audio quality of the recording, from 2012, is excellent, although marked by extraneous backstage noises toward the end, the video reproduction slightly less so. An accompanying booklet includes synopsis, commentary and track timings.

Reviewer: Colin Davison