There aren’t, as far as I’m aware, many operas with links to Linz. Indeed, the Upper Austrian city is probably best known in musical circles for having been home to that most unoperatic of composers, Anton Bruckner. Nevertheless, the Landestheater Linz has made the most of the fact that the Imperial mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler was resident there from the second decade of the 17th century. They commissioned Philip Glass’s Kepler for the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture and premiered it in 2009. Now, eight years later in its shiny new Musiktheater (opened in 2013), they have staged an impressive new production of Paul Hindemith’s 1956-7 Die Harmonie der Welt.

Seho Chang (Kepler) © Thilo Beu
Seho Chang (Kepler)
© Thilo Beu
With a libretto (by the composer) drawing on episodes of Kepler’s life and a score that calls upon on Hindemith’s own musical reinterpretation of his theories, it’s a fascinating, serious piece of work. The action is set across several years and geographical locations: between 1608 and 1630; in Prague, Württemberg and Regensburg as well as Linz. This, and the fact that history rumbles along in the background throughout – largely embodied in the character of Habsburg generalissimo Wallenstein – even seem to give piece distant echoes of grand opéra.

Hindemith splits his action up into 14 scenes set across 5 acts, though, and keeps the pace distinctly snappy across the opera’s three-hour span. There’s love interest of a sort, with Kepler ending up with his assistant’s crush, Susanna, after she sides with him in a theological dispute. But the main focus is on Kepler’s own struggles, his attempts to concentrate on developing his swirling, ever-expanding theories of the cosmos as earthly concerns pile up around him. Wallenstein, cruelly parodied throughout in impotent marches, tries to twist Kepler’s theories to fit his militaristic ambitions; Kepler is drawn into his mother’s public trial for witchcraft, finally having to reject her; towards the end, Susanna herself starts to have doubts about her man and his ideas.

Finally, so much having unravelled around him, Kepler finds harmony only in death, after which Hindemith’s final scene transforms into a grand allegorical tableau of the cosmos. ‘May also the sight into the far-off,’ everyone sings in the end, ‘lift us above the narrow self…until it pleases Him to let us merge in His great harmony of the world’. Here, the score, which until then has been characterized by disciplined, tightly controlled melodic snippets coupled to a firm, determined sense of forward momentum, is allowed to blossom and take its time, to rousing and moving effect.

© Thilo Beu
© Thilo Beu

Inevitably it’s the most difficult part of the opera to stage, representing a shift towards something more like oratorio. Dietrich Hilsdorf and Hermann Schneider’s excellent new production perhaps took the easy option, but the result, though remaining earthbound, was still effective. The principals came to the front of the stage, the imposing expanded chorus spilled into the aisles (as they had done on several occasions throughout the evening) to surround the audience, the vast half-dome of an observatory that forms Dieter Richter’s set rotated slowly on its revolve.

Until then, the observatory had offered options for indoor and outdoor action, while clever use of a drop curtain and a broad strip of cloth stretched across the width of the stage opened up, with the aid of projections, further scenic possibilities. The action, above all, was presented efficiently, clearly, intelligently and stylishly. Loosely updated to around the middle of the 20th century but with echoes still of earlier history, the staging also struck just the right balance between specificity and universality.

Sandra Trattnigg (Susanne), Sven Hjörleifsson (Ulrich Grüßer) © Thilo Beu
Sandra Trattnigg (Susanne), Sven Hjörleifsson (Ulrich Grüßer)
© Thilo Beu

Musically the performance was excellent, too, with Gerrit Prießnitz bringing remarkable discipline and control to proceedings. The Bruckner Orchester Linz were in absolute harmony with Hindemith’s tightly-argued idiom, playing with precision and seriousness, but also warmth and wit. At the head of a terrific ensemble cast, Seho Chang offered an earnest, troubled Kepler, strongly sung. Jacques Le Roux presented just the right mix of charisma and swagger as Wallenstein. Icelandic tenor Sven Hjörleifsson was impressive as Kepler’s helper-turned-hinderer Ulrich, singing with pleasingly clean tone. Matthias Helm was an excellent Tansur, and Sandra Trattnigg sang Susanna with a lovely light-lyric tone.

Hindemith’s work itself is unlikely, one imagines, to deviate from its present orbit some distance from the core of the operatic repertoire. But it’s an important, fascinating piece, and one that shows how Hindemith could produce a work of utmost musical and dramatic clarity based on theories of considerable complexity. This production has obliquely done Kepler, the originator of those theories, proud; but, more importantly, it has done a great service to a still underrated composer.