Monday, March 7, 2011

Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, referenced in the publicity for Cardillac.

I'm only just now writing about Opera Boston's Cardillac (which closed last week), because it's the kind of production that always puts me on the fence: it was interesting, but flawed.  What's more, the flaws ran through both the material and its performance - Paul Hindemith's 1926 opera will probably never join the standard repertory, for reasons which I'll explain, and Opera Boston's production only intermittently engaged with its necrophilic intensity, anyhow.  Still, it was interesting - in the good sense of the word; both opera and production were simply uneven.  The local critics showered it with praise, however, for obvious reasons: Opera Boston is devoted to adventurous repertory, they're coming off an up-and-down season (or two), and local hero Sanford Sylvan was cast in the lead.  Those were all pretty good excuses, I guess, for squinting a bit and saying the show was great.  But I have to say the slightly restive audience I saw it with seemed to feel otherwise, and I was inclined to agree with them.

First, the opera itself.  The Republicans are ruthlessly pulling power back from the Democrats these days, and so the scent of Weimar is in the air again, just as it was in the mid-90's (during the last threatened government shutdown). And to be blunt, move over, Cabaret - you can't get much more Weimar-esque than Cardillac.

Indeed, while Hindemith's libretto may be drawn from an E.T.A. Hoffmann detective story, its doomy mood is straight out of the sado-masochistic handbook of Weimar horror movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (while its anti-hero plays like a twisted variation on Lang's Dr. Mabuse). Indeed, in a recent (and celebrated) production of the opera in Vienna, the iconography of Caligari was explicitly invoked (at left).

No doubt this seemed completely appropriate, as the opera's fragmented libretto plays out obliquely, like a dream: the eponymous Cardillac (pronounced "car-di-yak") is a goldsmith so enthralled by the beauty of his own creations that he murders their purchasers to win them back (I guess it never occurred to this evil genius to never sell them in the first place).  And in a double overlay of pleasure and death, the opera's action consistently floats the suggestion that Cardillac may also be incestuously fixated on his daughter (who wants to elope with a lovestruck Officer);  meanwhile, in a sub-plot (or what amounts to a subplot), a Lady insists her Cavalier purchase one of the artist's baubles for the specific purpose of using Death's ensuing approach as an aphrodisiac (scene above).  Needless to say, in Cardillac, Eros and Thanatos are such bosom buddies that they almost never part ways.

But while these dark conceits all but scream Weimar, Opera Boston instead went for a sleek, Chelsea-gallery style setting in "the near future" (and its publicity quoted Damien Hirst's notorious diamond-encrusted skull, at top).  This didn't work, really, because oddly enough there's something very earnest about Weimar perversion that seems faintly ridiculous when translated into the present-day gallery scene;  it's hard to imagine, say, self-aware ironists like Hirst or Jeff Koons hunting down a client to retrieve a favorite balloon sculpture or dead shark (that had been fabricated by somebody else, anyhow).

Sanford Sylvan as Cardillac.
So while the setting and costumes were certainly striking (at left), they didn't really resonate with the text.  And Sanford Sylvan's performance in the central role didn't help matters.  Sylvan was in fine voice - but it's essentially a warm voice, without the cold edge that should chill us in Cardillac.  And his acting amounted to one long thousand-yard stare - a trick that has worked for him in the past, but here became repetitive.  Cardillac must be a man of passion - the plot's big surprise depends on that - but Sylvan never managed (or even seemed to want) to convey that.

To be fair, the rest of the cast often supplied what Sylvan lacked.  Sol Kim Bentley sounded gorgeous as his Daughter, and acted with a kind of tortured poise; and as her Officer, tenor Steven Sanders tended to thin out at the top of his range, but acted with a forcefulness that should have found its match in Cardillac.  Meanwhile the great Janna Baty and Frank Kelley camped it up amusingly as that decadent Lady and Cavalier - although while their simulated cunnilingus and testicle play may have shocked the ladies of Beacon Hill, they never really got hot, if you know what I mean.  Probably the best combination of fine acting and singing came from the reliable David Kravitz, who as the Gold Merchant (who stumbles on Cardillac's secret, and gets killed for it) didn't let a truly bizarre hairdo throw him.

So most of the cast was in solid form, yet somehow the performance never found its stride - largely, I think, due to the static direction by Nic Muni (I really wish that whole dreamy, Peter-Sellars-by-way-of-Robert Wilson style of stage somnambulism would just die out).  But at the same time, these longeurs left us free to consider the opera's "incidental" music, which is probably its strongest stuff.  I didn't find any of the arias memorable - they're somehow over-considered - but there's a wonderful chorus at the finale, and Cardillac has a strange, metallic little saxophone theme that hangs in your mind - and at one point, just where you expect an aria, Hindemith supplies a haunting flute duet instead.  Down in the pit, conductor Gil Rose made the most of all these sudden flashes of inspiration.  Oddly, Cardillac may be that rare opera in which the real action starts when the arias stop.

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