October 5, 2005 3:00 am

Mathis der Maler

Mathis der Maler

Hamburg State Opera

This is a mission statement. In choosing Hindemith's opera as the first new production of her Intendantship at Hamburg's State Opera, Simone Young shows a passion for the hard questions in life.

Nobody gets off lightly. Not the singers, the orchestra, the production team or the audience. Almost uncut, with two intervals, the work lasts over four hours. There are no comic interludes.

Faced with the religious and political turmoil of the Peasants' War of 1525, the painter Matthias Grünewald doubts the function of the artist in society. Is what he does merely selfish? When Hindemith wrote the piece in the mid-1930s, he was asking himself the same questions. He wrote his own libretto, including a book- burning scene.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazis banned the piece. It was premiered in Zurich in 1938. Both Grünewald and Hindemith opted for a kind of inner exile, for which the latter was later criticised.

For all its strict counterpart and astringent textures, Hindemith's score proves surprisingly lush in Young's hands. Though the piece is dense and full of words, Young never loses sight of the central themes, and preserves a luminous sense of beauty throughout.

Christian Pade's direction and Alexander Lintl's design do a lot to foster the sense of clarity. Lintl quotes Bacon, Basquiat, Beuys and Grünewald's famous Isenheim altar. His costumes are studiously timeless. Pade moves his characters through Lintl's lucid symbolism with poise, finding strong images for the main conflicts, never overstating his case. The work's static nature is accepted as a given. That makes for a sombre evening but, with so much musical tension, it never drags.

The opera is almost impossible to cast. Most roles are thanklessly strenuous. Young has assembled a superb team, consistently robust, alert, and musical. In the title role, Falk Struckmann gives a performance of unflagging power, tempered with warmth and wisdom. It is a sound you could bathe in, inviting and enveloping, commanding attention and demanding sympathy. He is perfectly offset by Inga Kalna's Regina, innocent daughter of peasant leader Hans Schwalb (sung with incisive energy by Pär Lindskog). Kalna has irresistible charisma and a fresh, radiant tone. Susan Anthony's Ursula has conviction and strength, Scott MacAllister forges his way fearlessly through the murderous role of doubting cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg. Only the chorus disappoints.

The conductor Ingo Metzmacher and director Peter Konwitschny spent eight years establishing Hamburg's State Opera as a house that could set national standards. Young had to prove that she could find a new direction without going backwards. She has done just that. SHILRLEY ALTHORP

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