Nic Muni’s staging, Erhard Rom’s geometrical neo-Weimar scenic design, and Gabriel Berry’s post-Mod costumes were all less successful. The opera presents a real conundrum: it’s both a plotty murder mystery and an abstract fable about the creation and meaning of art. Hindemith’s setting (from Hoffmann) is the age of Louis XIV and Lully, far enough in the past to be both credible and imaginary, a fairy tale at a time when ornamental gold could also be great art and polyphony was the dominant musical mode. Changing that to “the near future,” with a big flat-screen TV playing commercials for Cardillac’s jewelry store, made it harder to believe that Cardillac is a great artist, or that the robberies and murders he’s committing are for something other than money. Muni also sentimentalized the ending, in which Cardillac, now a confessed murderer, dies during Hindemith’s most beautiful chorale. The stage picture ignored Cardillac’s last and most ironic gesture: reaching out not to his daughter but to a gold chain.
Christopher Ostrom’s dramatic lighting and looming shadows added to the sense of mystery, but the on-stage orgies — always tricky — were less sexy than comical. And there were some fundamental problems with characterization, for which I hold the director responsible. Stentorian tenor Steven Sanders, as the officer who loves Cardillac’s daughter and so lets Cardillac get away with murder, showed little loving or passion in his military stiffness. And even marvelous baritone Sanford Sylvan, in a role he was born to sing, was directed to be a figure so blatantly sinister that he emerged as a villain, not a great artist doomed by his compulsions.
Baritone David Kravitz was especially effective as both a Big Brother ruler and a victimized gold merchant. Tenor Frank Kelley and mezzo-soprano Janna Baty were sado-masochistic lovers; touching (but vocally hard-edged) soprano Sol Kim Bentley was Cardillac’s neglected daughter. Despite my reservations, I found this a powerful experience. We should all be deeply grateful to Opera Boston for giving us a chance to contend with Hindemith’s overlooked 20th-century masterpiece.
-In 2015, the Handel and Haydn Society will be celebrating its bicentennial, and music director Harry Christophers is already focusing on H&H’s American premieres — like last week’s Handel oratorio, Israel in Egypt, which deals with the death of Joseph, the plagues, and Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites back to the Holy Land (selections from which were first performed in this country at H&H’s very first concert). It’s a field day for the chorus, and it should have been an ideal work for Christophers, whose main background is in choral conducting. The H&H chorus certainly sounded beautiful. Is there anything in Handel prettier than the pastorale “He led them forth like sheep,” with its accompanying flutes (Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfes)? But diction was so muddy, I could barely understand a word of the chorus without the libretto. (The excellent solos, by chorus members, were far more articulate.) Better diction would surely have sharpened the rhythms, especially when Christophers was rushing the music — as in the bracing but also magisterial final chorus, which ends, “the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” Thank heaven for timpanist John Grimes’s incisive underpinning, and the pungent trumpets and trombones.