Cardillac (1926) is one of Hindemith's most musically diverse and engaging operas, but dramatically it's something of a hard sell. It concerns an artistically brilliant seventeenth century Parisian goldsmith who murders anyone who purchases one of his works because he can't bear to part with the beauty he has created. His adoring public never puts two and two together and remains mystified as to how 100 percent of his clients happen to run into such bad luck. When he finally confesses to the crimes, the crowd kills him, but after his last intended victim explains the artistic motivation behind his murder spree, the same crowd laments his death. It's a real trick to make the opera dramatically convincing, and this video of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1985 production from the Bayerischen Staatsoper doesn't manage to pull it off. Ponnelle's approach is to emphasize the grotesque elements of the story, which he does primarily through his eccentric design concept. Architecturally, he's taken his cue from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with his buildings skewed to precipitous angles. The populace of Paris is stripped of individual identities; the chorus members all wear white stockings over their faces, with black-ringed holes for their mouth and eyes. Cardillac is portrayed as a raving, mad scientist-type -- how could anyone NOT assume he was a murderer? Ponnelle's exaggerated caricatures make the storyline less, not more, believable. His direction involves far too many still tableaux; the characters strike a pose and hold it rigidly until some musical or dramatic event is completed. In general, his sense of timing squanders the genuine drama Hindemith builds into the score. The worst example is the moment when the murderer interrupts the love scene and stabs the Cavalier to death. In the score, the music stops and the murderer is given a half note with a fermata in which to rush into the room and fall on the couple, but Ponnelle drags out the entry so agonizingly long that the scene is drained of any suspense or tension and becomes simply ludicrous.
Musically, the performance rarely catches fire. Wolfgang Sawallisch's conducting is surprisingly tepid, and musical climaxes come and go with little of the punch the composer intended. The singing, though, is generally of a high quality. Donald McIntyre is a crazed and compelling Cardillac. Josef Hopferweiser as the Cavalier and Doris Soffel and the Lady sing with beautiful tone and make the most of their brief but intriguing scenes. Maria de Francesca-Cavazza as the Daughter and Robert Schunk as the Officer are adequate but bland, and generate little musical or dramatic heat. Overall, the production is an inadequate presentation of Hindemith's vision, and at worst comes across as silly. The opera fan who is curious about this fascinating work would do better to seek out the extraordinarily fine 2005 Paris Opera production on Bel Air Classiques.