New York City Opera Premiere: "Mathis der Maler"
Has Art No Meaning for the Common Man?
[original title: Mathis der Maler
Hindemith's Troubled Masterpiece
In Its Professional U.S. Premiere At Last] AUFBAU 61:19 Sept. 15, 1995

Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
September 12, 1995
(1444 words)

Paul Hindemith's masterpiece, Mathis der Maler (the title of his tenth opera, of twelve), has long been recognized as a "cornerstone" of the modern repertoire. But not of the modern operatic repertoire; of the modern symphonic repertoire.

There are dozens of recordings of the Symphonie, Mathis der Maler which the composer based on themes from the opera, before he actually completed the opera of the same name. Wilhelm Furtwaengler premiered the orchestra piece in March, 1934 with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which recorded it for Telefunken, conducted by Hindemith himself on September 4 of that year. (Capitol released it much later, on 78s; Telefunken finally brought it out, on LP, in 1973, in honor of the tenth anniversary of the composer's death. It has yet to appear on CD.)

But the opera, which Furtwaengler had planned to premiere with the Berliner Staatsoper, had to wait until May 28, 1938 for its world premiere, in Zuerich, as Hindemith (1895-1963) emigrated to the U.S. via Turkey and Switzerland. Stuttgart hosted the German premiere on December 13, 1946. And now at last, in the composer's centennial year, New York City Opera under general director and conductor Christopher Keene is presenting the professional U.S. premiere, September 7, 10, 15, 20 and 26, 1995. These are the most important American performances of a warm and passionate work by the greatest German classicist of this century since Hindemith himself conducted George London, Louise Parker and the New York Philharmonic in his Requiem "For Those We Love" at Philharmonic Hall in April, 1963, just months before his death.

The event provides an occasion both for rejoicing and for sad contemplation. For the opera is about nothing less than the sanity, humanness and integrity of the arts in an insane, inhuman world of strife, rape and death. The central figure is the painter Mathis Gothart-Nithart (c.1475-1528, later known as Matthias Gruenewald). While demagogues rant that art has "keinen Sinn fr den gemeinen Mann," Hindemith's artist protagonist claims the right for the arts to follow their own laws ("eignen Gesetzen"). Thus, it was not only Hindemith's having a Jewish wife that caused the Nazis to ban the work. His text, which he wrote himself, would have been enough.

In the program notes, Christopher Keene points out that Hitler had been so offended by a nude soprano singing from a bathtub in the 1929 production of Hindemith's eighth opera, the comedy Neues vom Tage, that the Nazis immediately began a campaign labeling the composer degenerate ("entartet"). But even without that, Mathis der Maler is strong stuff for tyrants or would-be tyrants. In fact, it has a uniquely sobering message for anyone seeking refuge from the horrors that religion and ideology have wrought over the last 500 years: The first recording of excerpts from the opera was made (by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Donald Grobe and Pilar Lorengar with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Leopold Ludwig) at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin in November, 1961, just months after the Wall went up. And to quote the elo-quent Christopher Keene once more: "We have come from 1933, when murderous dictators insisted upon the crucial importance of harnessing art to politics, to 1995, when our great but confused and conflicted democracy seriously debates whether art has any real importance to society at all."

With all this historical and contemporary importance, one would have liked to have heralded the production unreservedly as a triumph. It is the first of three contemporary works Keene plans to conduct this season at NYCO, the others being Temple of the Golden Pavilion after a novel by Yukio Mishima with a German libretto by Claus Henneberg translated into English by Keene himself and music by Toshiro Mayuzumi (October 19-November 8) and Jost Meier's The Dreyfus Affair - which was also set to music and premiered in German, though the George Whyte libretto was originally in English and will be so performed here (April 2-17).

There is much to praise and to be thankful for in the new production of the Hindemith. Apart from a few unrolled American r's, the German pronunciation of the cast is generally excel-lent, thanks to diction coach Richard Cross, long of the Frankfurt Opera. The two heldentenor roles of the peasant leader Hans Schwalb and the grandeurloving but ultimately self-denying cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg are amply filled by the commanding presences of Michael Hayes and Allan Glassman, respectively. Hayes should, however, have been made up and directed a lot older - he comes across as more of a younger brother than a father to his daughter. Glassman, a self-styled "nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn" who first sang contemporary opera as a baritone in Tales of Malamud back in 1978, has come a long way: his most recent, even more impressive role was Haman, the villain in Hugo Weisgall's magnificent Esther, at NYCO two years ago.

The two soprano roles of Ursula and Regina, who provide a moving though ethereal love interest, were vocally well personified by Lauren Flanigan and Mary Dunleavy. The latter's death scene, permeated with the leitmotivic cantus firmus, "Es sungen drei Engel," was especially moving. Hymns and chants are scattered liberally throughout the operatic texture: "Nun danket alle Herr" punctuates the battle scene of the central tableau (#4 of 7) with intense irony.

Mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon turns in a memorable performance in the same scene portraying the Countess Helfenstein, who is gang-raped by rebellious peasants despite Mathis' efforts to stop them, and then later saves his life when the tide of battle turns. Director Rhoda Levine's choreographic skills were particularly in evidence here, as they had been in City Opera's justly acclaimed production of Aloys Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. Her use of fragmentary drops in designer John Conklin's set was often imaginative. But why on earth did she refrain from using any part of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece, the creation of which forms the climax of the opera? Anyone who has seen the magnificent original at Colmar in Alsace, or viewed the 22 slide reproductions available with the 1979 cassette of the symphony recording by Von Karajan, must wonder about the wisdom of this negative directorial decision.

Sadly, the greatest lacks in this production are to be found at the center. Notwithstanding Bernard Holland's judgment in The New York Times that "this is an opera that can never quite decide where its center lies," the problem is not in the health of the composition but in that of the personnel. With a Fischer-Dieskau in the title role - as on the 1961 excerpt recording or the 1979 complete recording, which was the only one until the WERGO release of last year - there would be no question of where the center lies. Unfortunately, baritone William Stone was too ill to sing at the premiere; he mimed the part while his cover Stephen Powell sang from the pit. In the second performance (to a full house), Powell sang from the stage. His acting proved convincing, though not commanding, and his very beautiful voice was covered in some of the early scenes until conductor Keene managed to rein in the orchestra as the piece went on.

But saddest of all is the physical condition of Christopher Keene. Not even fifty years old, but ravaged by illness, he gives the impression of Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) in his last years. The soloists and chorus sing and the orchestra (except for a couple of violin passages in the early scenes that should have had more sectional rehearsals) plays with the attention and devotion one experienced under Karl Boehm in his final performances. But the energy one has grown to expect from Keene since his brilliant 1968 debut in Ginastera's Don Rodrigo is simply waning. As the tempi get slower and slower, one finds oneself on the edge of one's seat wondering how and even if he will get through the run, let alone the season. Mathis ends with a cry for humanity that could be his own all too early epitaph:

        Sie moegen noch bewahren, wenn man mich begraben hat
        Einen Hauch dessen, was ich an Gutem uebte,
        Was ich erstrebte, was ich erschuf,
        Was mir an Ehren ward, was mich bedraengte, was ich liebte.

(You may yet remember, when I have been buried, a trace of what was good within me, what I strove for, what I created, what honors came to me, what distressed/afflicted me, what I loved.)

The aims and hopes of Paul Hindemith, Mathis der Maler, New York City Opera and Christopher Keene deserve a wide public, and a longer life.

*This passage, in this translation, was quoted, credited, in a Long Island Philharmonic program in memory of Christopher Keene, who died not long after this, his last performance.

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