Cardillac, Opera by Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith counts among the brightest stars of German neoclassicism, and his tonally ambiguous compositional style sets him apart from his peers. Among his operas, Cardillac stands out as his first full-length effort and his boldest use of his characteristic musical expression. The palpable tension, the ostinato rhythms and the breathless themes will grab the audiences at the Vienna State Opera this season.
Based on the short story Das Fräulein von Scuderi by the German master of macabre fantasies E. T. A. Hoffmann, Cardillac is set in 17th-century Paris where an unstoppable killer is striking terror in the hearts of the high society. In the libretto by Ferdinand Lion, the protagonist Cardillac appears as a gifted goldsmith whose jewellery is both famous and lethal: soon after purchasing a Cardillac piece, the unlucky owner turns up dead. As more and more murders occur, the famous goldsmith becomes increasingly erratic, and his compulsive dedication to his craft starts raising suspicion. The plot escalates when Cardillac’s daughter and her beloved, the Officer, get tangled in the murder-mystery, bringing the drama to a shocking resolution.
In Cardillac, Hindemith explores one of his favourite themes, namely the relationship between an artist and the society in which he lives and creates. The internal tensions that the various characters are trying to conceal find apt musical expression in the diatonic score, punctuated by ostinatos. The orchestra makes the gasping nature of the themes come through with clarity and sharpness. Using various musical and compositional devices, Hindemith masterfully captures the disturbing atmosphere of Hoffmann’s original tale and makes this opera a special, haunting experience.
Cardillac was premiered at the Staatsoper in Dresden on 9 November 1926 where it garnered modest public acclaim, though critics gave it praise. Hindemith produced a new score in 1952, but his first effort remained superior according to most accounts. Wiener Staatsoper now showcases the dark side of opera with a revival of the original Cardillac.