Golden moment has arrived

A tale of murder, 'Cardillac' set for Boston premiere

Sanford Sylvan and Sol Kim Bentley star in Opera Boston's production of 'Cardillac.' Sanford Sylvan and Sol Kim Bentley star in Opera Boston's production of "Cardillac." (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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“A lover who is afraid of thieves is not worthy of love.’’ That single quote would eventually yield Paul Hindemith’s 1926 opera “Cardillac,’’ which Opera Boston will stage at the end of the month, in its belated Boston premiere. The line was attributed to the 17th-century writer Madeleine de Scudéry, whose classically disguised romans à clef reimagined the leading personalities of Louis XIV’s France as figures of antiquity. But “Cardillac’’ collapses historical distance, the combination of its curious story and its unorthodox telling creating an uneasy immediacy.

It was E.T.A. Hoffmann, the great 19th-century storyteller, who chanced across Scudéry’s aphorism and fashioned an entire tale around it; “Mademoiselle de Scudéri’’ was, essentially, a mystery novel, with the elderly lady novelist as an unlikely detective. Hoffmann saturated the story with Romantic disquiet: a series of murders, a baffled police force, a Star-Chamber special commission that sows more terror than it prevents. But it was the murderer that most captured the imagination: Cardillac, the brilliant goldsmith so reluctant to part with his creations that he kills their owners in order to steal them back. The singular character drives the story, a story “about celebrity,’’ notes Gil Rose, Opera Boston’s artistic director, “the fall of celebrity, the expectations of celebrity.’’

Hindemith and his librettist, Ferdinand Lion, stripped that story down to its Expressionist core. Still nominally set in 17th-century Paris, the opera also breathes the air of the post-World War I Weimar Republic. Cardillac is musically shadowed by a tenor saxophone; a bit of tavern music is anachronistically jazzy and brittle. Hindemith had gained notoriety with such cheeky appropriations — in the 1920s, he was fully engaged in “the race to the top of the bad-boy heap,’’ as Rose puts it.

But “Cardillac’’ also reveals a composer determined to carve out his own sound. “Even people at the time weren’t writing music like this,’’ Rose says. Hindemith was moving from provocative stylistic graffiti to a trenchant neo-Classicism that came to be known as the “New Objectivity’’; in “Cardillac,’’ the New Objectivity bares razor-sharp claws. The old-fashioned architecture ironically escorts the plot’s expressionism: a love scene derails into incongruously polite counterpoint; one pivotal attack happens in complete silence, as if to demonstrate the score’s pointed indifference. Hindemith also, perhaps, identified with his title character, the extremes to which he went in order to keep his art autonomous.

Throughout the 1920s, Hindemith sought — not always successfully — to avoid politicized art, to resist the pressures of right and left alike to appropriate art in order to advance their vision of a future Germany. The ambivalence of Cardillac’s character reflected the era’s dangerous fluidity. “There’s these despicable, awful aspects, but also very human aspects, and it’s never really resolved,’’ Rose says. “That was Germany at the time — they didn’t know which way to turn.’’

After another war and a period of exile in the United States, Hindemith reconsidered his antihero. He revised “Cardillac’’ in later life, smoothing over some of its avant-garde edges, making it more of a period piece (Hindemith added a fourth act, drawing on music by Lully), and, crucially, making the title character less diabolically fascinating and more of a common criminal.

Hindemith wanted his artist-protagonist to reflect his own artistic priorities, and his priorities had changed. Concert music had become less important to him than promoting music-making as a common component of everyday life; Hindemith preferred that people take music for their own use, to, in essence, steal music back from the concert hall. Cardillac, once a symbol of artistic independence, now seemed to Hindemith an artist afraid of having his work stolen and — in Scudéry’s calculus — no longer worthy of love.

But to return to the original version of “Cardillac,’’ as Opera Boston will — a piece of theater that “must have knocked people’s heads off,’’ Rose muses — erases the buffer Hindemith built into his revision. Hoffmann’s glittering 17th-century paranoia, filtered through Hindemith’s 20th-century cool, starts to feel awfully familiar and contemporary, its tension between art and culture and power, its rigid categories purposefully oblivious to chaos and violence, its shocking banalities and banal shocks. “Cardillac’’ has finally made it to Boston, but it’s not quite right to say that its time has come: Its time has been there all along.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

HINDEMITH: “CARDILLAC’’ Opera Boston Nic Muni, director

Gil Rose, conductor

Cutler Majestic Theater, Feb. 25, 27, March 1. 617-824- 8000;

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