Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Cardillac in Vienna is influenced by German Expressionist cinema

AustriaAustria Hindemith, Cardillac: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Jasmina Eleta) from Vienna State Opera, 13.11.2022. (JPr)

Thomas Konieczny as Cardillac

Production – Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Stage designer – Rolf Glittenberg
Costume designer – Marianne Glittenberg
Lighting designer – Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus director – Thomas Lang

Cardillac – Tomasz Konieczny
Cardillac’s daughter – Vera-Lotte Boecker
The Officer – Gerhard A. Siegel
The Gold Dealer – Wolfgang Bankl
The Cavalier – Daniel Jenz
The Lady – Stephanie Houtzeel
Provost marshal – Evgeny Solodovnikov

I doubt Paul Hindemith’s 1926 Cardillac has ever been experienced very much in the UK and I can only find an aria was sung at a 1964 BBC Prom and the New Opera Company gave the first staged performances in 1970 at Sadler’s Wells. In Vienna this was the 15th outing for Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s 2010 production and Cardillac was first put on there in 1927 when one of the set designers was none other than Alfred Roller, a past collaborator there with Gustav Mahler. Cardillac is something of a psychological thriller with an antihero as its central character (think, Berg’s Wozzeck, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, Britten’s Peter Grimes). Hindemith’s opera is based a character in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Das Fräulein von Scuderi, the brilliant goldsmith Cardillac. As in the novella he is precious about the pieces he makes – mostly gold chains it seems – and is reluctant to part with them and so reclaims them by murdering his high society clients in seventeenth-century Paris.

Bechtolf – along with designers Rolf Glittenberg (stage) and Marianne Glittenberg (costumes) – updates the story to the 1920s and there is the milieu of German expressionist cinema of the early decades of the twentieth century. Influences include I would think, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are two-dimensional lopsided buildings, and the threatening crowd are all in black with whitened faces with the men in top hats and the women with pilgrim-style bonnets. Three small houses also cross the stage. Singing ‘Murderer! Amongst us, with us!’ anyone who stands out from the crowd is in danger from their vengeance seeking.

The Provost appears and calms the crowd by announcing the ‘Burning Chamber’ has been set up to bring the murderer to justice and this is hauntingly prescient of what the Nazis will get up to in coming decades. He is accompanied by two briefcase carrying dignitaries who could either be thought to be goose-stepping or from the Ministry of Silly Walks. We soon see how much Cardillac is revered before we concentrate on two fan-bearing grotesque popinjays and watch the pursuit of the Lady (blonde and tiaraed) by the Cavalier with his white trousers. She sings how ‘Paris is groaning under the excess of crime’ yet still demands ‘the most beautiful piece that Cardillac has ever made’ and the Cavalier is eager to get her the jewellery so he can rush to her bed.

The Vienna Cardillac is performed without an interval so there is now an interlude with the curtain down. It rises on a scene showing some red drapes opening in the centre with the Lady waiting for the Cavalier on a black plinth singing of how she wants to be beneath him. Behind a screen there is the silhouette of the Cavalier tempting the Lady with the gold chain; they will swop with the Cavalier now onstage and we see the outline of the Lady taking her gown off. She then joins him and after Hindemith’s apparent homage to ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ they start to make love. The shadow of Cardillac looms large and the Cavalier is stabbed more in the pounding music we hear than on stage.

After a pause there is more violent music and Cardillac is at his work bench with a golden cabinet behind him as he sings how “What I create belongs to me’. He is confronted by the Gold Dealer who has his suspicions about Cardillac. Already there has been much stylised movement in Bechtolf’s staging and his daughter in white with her braided red hair enters and accompanied by solo violin walks Coppélia-like as an automaton. The cabinet opens revealing a tumble of white chairs and a baby doll (presumably Cardillac’s grandchild we hear about?) that she will cast aside. She loves the Officer and wants to flee with him but is reluctant to leave her father even though she sings ‘Why do you caress your gold and not me?’ Then there is an odd scene when the king (here as a child) enters the workshop wanting something from Cardillac. He is accompanied by his daughter (a young pirouetting ballerina) and their vampire-like retainer (Murnau’s Nosferatu). They leave and the Officer returns and demands ‘the most beautiful thing you have ever created’. The Officer throws money at Cardillac and despite the threat he poses buys a gold chain (cue more tumultuous music). Cardillac, in full Jack the Ripper guise, will follows him to get back what belongs to him.

With a huge top hat outlined in lights at the back of the stage, Cardillac’s attempt to kill the officer fails and he is denounced (‘Cardillac was the culprit!’) to the crowd by the Gold Merchant who was spying on him. In an attempt to save him the Officer takes the blame while the crowd takes it out on the merchant for accusing Cardillac with everyone moving in slow motion. Cardillac’s daughter – after much shuffling and emoting – reveals she knows he is guilty. The music ramps up even more whilst Cardillac refuses to name the killer and the crowd threaten his house. An unrepentant Cardillac finally confesses to the murders and the mob – moving robotically – kill him before it is proclaimed that ‘He was the victim of a holy delusion’. Now he is dead Cardillac is shown as a statue on a plinth with gold hat, gold face and gold chain and venerated (‘A hero has died!’) as if he has been sanctified during this ‘Night of death’.

Conclusion of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Cardillac at Vienna State Opera

Hindemith’s music is quite accessible, if rather angular, schizophrenic, demonic, full of nervous energy and march-like by turns and often at odds with the voice-shredding vocal lines. As heard through loudspeakers – and having nothing to compare it with – the genial Cornelius Meister (who conducted the new Bayreuth Ring this summer) drew an engrossing account of the score from his incomparable Vienna State Opera Orchestra and he was supported by the fully-committed, stentorian chorus. Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny sang Wotan at Bayreuth and with his rich, assured and characterful tones brought Cardillac to life as Hindemith’s murderous Hans Sachs, as much a master with leather as his character is with gold. Vera-Lotte Boecker was the clingy daughter torn between the love of her father and the Officer and had some good moments, especially her duet with Cardillac near the end of the opera. Tenor Gerhard A. Siegel as the Officer became increasing sorely tested by the tessitura of what he had to sing, Wolfgang Bankl’s vignette as the nervy Mime-like Gold Dealer seemed another Hindemith homage to Wagner. Stephanie Houtzeel was mightily impressive as the Lady awaiting her Cavalier and the character gets some of the best music to sing. As the Cavalier and Provost respectively, Daniel Jenz and Evgeny Solodovnikov gave solid performances.

Perhaps Cardillac is not an opera I would rush to see and hear again but I found my attention never wandered during Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s gripping production.

Jim Pritchard

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