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 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.