The Opéra national de Paris features prominently and often in our selective survey of what's interesting in this year's opera season, thanks to the adventurous spirit of its director, Gérard Mortier. In fact, the Paris production of Antonin Dvořák's delightful fairytale opera Rusalka was the first thing on my list, chronologically speaking (see my review compilation). The next thing on Parisians' plates that interested me was a new production of Paul Hindemith's Cardillac (premiered in Dresden in 1926), being performed from September 24 to October 20, with Alan Held and, at the podium, Kent Nagano. Ferdinand Lion's libretto for Cardillac is based on a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Das Fraulein von Scuderi. I read several reviews, starting with Renaud Machart (L'événement "Cardillac" déçoit à demi par défaut de finesse et de fantastique, September 27) for Le Monde (my translation):
Cardillac requires an active, driven, intense conductor. Unfortunately, Kent Nagano sucks all of the seductive artifice out of the finely muscled score. Rather than accentuating its curves, concentrating its boundless rhythmic energy, the American conductor, known for his precise baton and his lack of emotional warmth, flattens the whole thing with his beat that is both dry and soft. We love the excellent cast, dominated by Alan Held (Cardillac) and Angela Denoke (his daughter), but it's too bad that Cardillac, composed for a chamber orchestra, is being performed in such a large hall, where it loses its elegance. On the other hand, the chorus is of a disproportionate size, and its appearances were often saturated by the thickness of sound.The production is directed by André Engel, who did interesting things with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, but his work here is reportedly fairly traditional. Next, Eric Dahan reviewed the opera (Un écrin pour «Cardillac», September 26) for Libération (my translation):
It's the event of the fall season: Hindemith's Cardillac is entering the repertoire of the Opéra de Paris. When he finished Cardillac in 1926, the German composer was already known for works bounding with Romanticism. With this opera based on a Hoffmann short story, he made a turn toward neoclassicism but also came closer to the partisans of a "new objectivity," who wanted to remove the pathos from the expressionism that had preceded it historically. The story is about a jeweler, bewitching his clients with superb jewels and objects to which he is so attached that he is even ready to get them back by assassinating their new owners.Dahan is also critical of Nagano and praises the cast. Finally, Jean-Louis Validire wrote a preview article (Cardillac en Fantômas, September 22) for Le Figaro (my translation):
The first problem for the director, who does not read music, was to get to know the composer's style. "I listened to CDs or cassettes to get familiar with the work," he explains. For Cardillac, the survey was over quickly since there are only two recordings, by Rafael Kubelik and the version of Gerd Albrecht, favored by Engel and Nagano. They looked for agreement beyond rhythmic and stylistic decisions. "Kent Nagano is very careful not to get in the way of the staging," exults Engel, for whom "a sucessful opera is one where the singers appear disengaged from the music to become actors." [...]Why exactly can't we have an opera company like this in the United States? That's it: I'm moving to Paris.
Engel conceived a staging that fits with the rhythm, the speed of a story that extends over 18 scenes with music that sought to return to Baroque aesthetics, far from serialism. Hindemith was, at the time of composition, in the state of mind of Stravinsky claiming that music does not express anything. The difficulty of the opera comes also from the composer's intention not to make the music serve the drama. He wrote an "objective" score that refuses all sentimentality, independent of the action on the stage. It's a strange way to create tension and provides a challenge to the director.