The New York City Opera and its enterprising director and principal conductor, Christopher Keene, deserve our congratulations for temerariously opening the new season with Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. One understands Keene’s eagerness to present an opera he loves, and that, though finished in 1935, has not until this Hindemith centenary received a fully professional production in America. Yet to mount such a grand-scale, technically demanding work on the City Opera’s usual shoestring endangers the opera’s communicativeness, if not indeed its artistic merit.

Composed to a libretto by Hindemith himself—perhaps his first mistake—the piece is subtitled “Opera in Seven Tableaus,” with Bilder meaning both scenes and pictures, appropriate to the hero, the painter (Maler) Mathias Grünewald, whose work the opera evokes...

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