Hindemith: Mathis der Maler review – vivid version of an unmistakably political opera

Wolfgang Koch/Kurt Streit/Manuela Uhl/Vienna SO/Bertrand de Billy
(Naxos, Blu-ray or 2 DVDs)
The visionary story of an artist caught up in social turmoil still resonates in this superbly conducted production

Mathis der Maler is easily the best known of Paul Hindemith’s nine operas, but its music is more often encountered in the concert hall than the opera house, thanks to the symphony that the composer extracted from his score. Since it was first seen, in Zurich in 1937, subsequent stagings have been few and far between – the Hamburg Opera brought it to the Edinburgh festival in 1952, but Mathis der Maler did not reach the London stage until the Royal Opera’s production in 1995. This recording (which is also being released next month by Capriccio in an audio-only version) is taken from a production by Keith Warner at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna in 2012.

Hindemith: Mathis de Maler DVD cover.
Hindemith: Mathis de Maler DVD cover. Photograph: Werner Kmetitsch

Hindemith wrote his own libretto for Mathis, an exploration of the clash between artists’ responsibility to their art and to the social and political issues of their time, which he based on the life of the 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald; the upheavals of the Reformation and the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt provide the background to the creation of Grünewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim altarpiece. Hindemith’s music had already earned the disapproval of the Nazis, and though the neoclassical language of Mathis was far less aggressively radical than his earlier expressionism, the political subtext of the opera was unmistakable.

Warner’s production, in a set by Johan Engels dominated by the giant figure of the crucified Christ from Grünewald’s altarpiece, is full of telling detail, with the climactic fourth scene depicting the Peasants’ Revolt itself, and Mathis’s vision in the sixth especially vivid. All the protagonists are portrayed with touching truthfulness too. Wolfgang Koch is the conflicted, all-too-human painter, Kurt Streit the cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, Franz Grundheber the Protestant Riedlinger and Manuela Uhl his daughter Ursula, with whom Mathis is in love. It’s superbly conducted by Bertrand de Billy, making the most of the opera’s visionary moments, and doing his best with its occasional longueurs. As the only version of the opera available on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s self-recommending for Hindemith fans.

This week’s other pick

The latest release on the Bayerisches Staatsoper’s own label is a two-DVD set of its 2019 production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. It could hardly be better cast: Jonas Kaufmann is the recently widowed Paul, whose obsession with his dead wife Marie leads him to imagine that he has found her again in Marietta, a dancer he meets by chance; Marlis Petersen takes the double role. Simon Stone’s production updates the opera to the present day, with an anonymous apartment replacing the original setting of the “dead city” of Bruges, and gives a cinematic quality to Paul’s hallucinatory dreams. But it’s Kirill Petrenko’s impassioned conducting that really makes the performance compelling: he clearly cares passionately about every note of the score, its overripe romanticism and all.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Schulhoff: Flammen review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Schulhoff’s work, recorded here in a staging from 2006, is a surreal reworking of Don Juan, with expressionist, neoclassicist and jazz elements

Andrew Clements

08, Apr, 2021 @3:20 PM

Article image
Lucio Papirio Dittatore review – heroic rare outing for fiery Caldara opera
La Serenissima rise to the coloratura challenges of Antonio Caldara’s baroque story of jealousy and persecution

Andrew Clements

10, Jul, 2019 @3:01 PM

Article image
Eccles: Semele review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
Eccles’s 1706 work is a fascinating insight into its era, and this clean, light-on-its-feet version is a gratifying listen

Erica Jeal

04, Feb, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Aida review – Opera North rethinks Verdi's epic with formidable results
Annabel Arden’s semi-staging updates Aida to a middle eastern war zone, with added sex and PTSD – and it’s superbly sung

Tim Ashley

02, May, 2019 @11:58 AM

Article image
Dallapiccola: Il Prigioniero, etc review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The Italian composer’s lyrical yet economical drama confirms its status as one of the finest short stage works of the 20th century

Andrew Clements

02, Jul, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Franz Liszt: Sardanapalo, Mazeppa review – lost opera of glittering scope | Classical CD of the week
Musicologist David Trippet skilfully reconstructs a Liszt opera fragment, illustrating the composer’s fertile musical mind

Erica Jeal

07, Feb, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Intelligence Park review – brilliantly played but Barry's opera still bewilders
This witty production of Gerald Barry’s demanding opera about a composer with writer’s block features fine singing and brilliant playing

Erica Jeal

26, Sep, 2019 @11:01 AM

Article image
Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The German composer’s opera about the daughter of a monstrous Italian patriarch is worth revisiting in this stylish production

Andrew Clements

15, Aug, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Silver Lake/The Seraglio review – timely steps with English Touring Opera
Mozart’s culture clash comedy is impeccably paired with Weill’s parable where poverty and privilege compete under the malign eye of the far right

Tim Ashley

10, Oct, 2019 @10:12 AM

Article image
Czernowin: Heart Chamber review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Chaya Czernowin’s fourth opera has four singers portraying a couple and their inner worlds, but it’s her luminous orchestral writing that excites

Andrew Clements

18, Mar, 2021 @4:59 PM