Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Weber’s Der Freischütz at Opera Boston

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Der_Freischütz, 1822
Der Freischütz, 1822

Opera Boston
Der Freischütz
Music by Carl Maria von Weber
Libretto by Friederich Kind

Cutler Majestic Theatre
October 21, 2008

Conductor – Gil Rose
Stage Director – Sam Helfrich
Producer – Carole Charnow
Scenic Designer – Andrew Holland
Costume Designer – Nancy Leary
Assistant Conductor / Chorus Master – Edward Jones

Cast
Max – Daniel Snyder
Agathe – Emily Pulley
Kaspar – Andrew Funk
Ännchen – Heather Buck
Samiel / Hermit – Herbert Perry
Ottokar – David Kravitz
Kilian – Aaron Engebreth
Kuno – Tom O’Toole
Brautjungfer – Angela Hines Gooch

If Carl Maria von Weber occupies an esteemed position in music history textbooks, his works make only rare, fleeting appearances on opera programs outside Germany, even Der Freischütz, considered to be his only work with a sufficiently convincing libretto to merit staging today. As for Weber’s popularity in the United States, I expected to find that Der Freischütz had been a standard at the Met earlier on in its history, perhaps up until the 1960’s, when its theme of good triumphing over evil would have begun to grate, or at least before the First World War, when anti-German sentiment put a damper on such Teutonic entertainments. To my surprise I learned that, except for the 1880’s, the 1920’s and a 1971-72 production which never lasted beyond its first year, Der Freischütz was largely confined to individual arias performed at concerts, which were more frequent at the Met before the Second World War. (Weber’s Euryanthe received four performances in 1887, and Oberon was staged—very successfully, it seems—in 1918 with all dialogue removed and the remaining text refashioned.) Der Freischütz has been kept alive primarily by recordings, a famous one under Carlos Kleiber from 1973, a radio recording under Carlos’ father Erich, and a magnificent Salzburg performance under Wilhelm Furtwängler, not to mention Kubelik, Jochum, and a recent one under Harnoncourt.)

In short, when I learned that a production of Der Freischütz was in the offing, I came running, eager to see what sort of an impression this tremendously influential work would make on the stage. The performance was dramatically and especially musically an absolute delight—so insightful that the set design and costumes, which were, above all in the last two acts, ugly, cheap-looking, and counterintuitive, could not distract me from the best qualities of Opera Boston’s work. Gil Rose’s brilliant leadership of the excellent small orchestra and a first-rate cast of singers, as well as Sam Helfrich’s insightful direction gave it all the wonder of a fresh rediscovery. If my curiosity about the physical effect of a stage production was not literally satisfied, my understanding of the opera itself has been immensely enriched.

If production values were sacrificed, Gil Rose clearly knew where to muster his resources. Der Freischütz absolutely requires an excellent orchestra and strong singers, and he made sure to satisfy these needs on a high level. In the opening bars of the overture, the orchestra, consisting mostly of young musicians, who seemed to understand the larger aspects of the music they were playing, sounded nicely balanced in Cutler Majestic Theatre’s mellow acoustics. In spite of their small numbers the lower strings had a fine dark timbre and sufficient weight. Attacks were clean. Rose’s sense of tempo seemed just right, but what was most remarkable was his understanding of the structure and balance of Weber’s music. Never before have I been so keenly aware of Weber’s careful establishment of the proportions of phrases within melodies and of larger sections and how this balancing of moods is essential to the drama of the overture and of the work as a whole. The triumphant final section and its contrast with the turbulent minor section seemed to have its true intended effect in Rose’s interpretation. Inner voices always made themselves clearly heard, contributing sharp counter-accents and telling dissonances within the score’s crystalline texture. One could marvel at the economy of Weber’s writing and the intelligence of his construction as never before. This disciplined and insightful treatment prevailed throughout the opera. Clearly Gil Rose’s experience with contemporary music has developed his ability to read the classics with a fresh ear. There is no doubt that he is one of the most brilliant conductors of the upcoming generation.

From his first entrance as Max, Daniel Snyder established a very high vocal level, with his thoroughly virile tenor voice, which recalled the dusky timbres of the classic exponents of Max, Tannhaüser, and such roles, for example Helge Roswaenge, Hans Hopf and René Kollo. The voice was balanced and consistent throughout its range, and very handsome. Snyder acted convincingly and his sung German was quite good. His spoken German improved as the evening progressed. Andrew Funk applied his large, dark baritone to a many-sided and therefore somewhat restrained Kaspar. He could be jovial, vindictive, and terrified with equal effectiveness. Tom O’Toole sang Kuno with a capacious bass, slightly compromised by a very wide vibrato, and a strong characterization. Emily Pulley, as Agathe, sang with a full, flexible, and very beautiful soprano voice, projecting the dramatic shifts and gestures of her part with a natural intensity. Heather Buck’s well-knit, equally beautiful soprano sounded a trifle covered at first but soon opened up to its full splendor. A vivid and imaginative actress, she showed a dancer’s agility in her amusing, occasionally racy routines. Both sopranos had their great moments and brought down the house. Finally, David Kravitz, who, as one of the drunken Trojan sailors, contributed such a vivid cameo to the BSO’s recent performances of Les Troyens, both in Boston and at Tanglewood, gave an impressive characterization of Ottokar, the local nobleman, who dispenses justice at the end. His baritone was authoritative and rich, and he made the most of every moment of his somewhat brief appearance on stage. His Ottokar was not without a tinge of comedy, very much the bored aristocrat who seemed as if he might be slightly less bored, but much happier sipping coffee in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

These were all fine singing actors, and stage director Sam Helfrich gave them an interpretation worthy of their talents. A generation ago, his counterpart would have found it hard to approach this drama of good and evil without irony, or even to resist the temptation to present it as kitsch. On the contrary, Mr. Helfrich read the libretto and the score with an open mind and was able to find a genuinely compelling human situation in this simple story about simple people, who create a difficult situation for themselves, or Max, at least, who, so much in love with Agathe that he can’t see being able to live without her, which he will have to do, if he loses the shooting contest, falls into the sinister deception of the corrupt Kaspar, who has sold his soul to Samiel, the mad hunter of the forest. He would not only lose his beloved, he would lose his reputation as the best shot. Typically for this rather primitive silvan society, shame is as powerful a moral force as guilt. As it is, the story is hardly a Tannhaüser or a Tristan, but the oppressive forces of community and tradition and their thwarting of benign human impulses make for a compelling story. Ottokar, the merciless upholder of tradition, who is mostly thankful that this call to judgment has given his life meaning for the while, is countermanded by the Hermit, who has the sanctity to break the chain. In order to emphasize the balance of evil and good, Samiel and the Hermit are played by the same person, Herbert Perry, who brings the double roles off with an appropriate air of mystery. In the end, the authorities and the guilty are equally compromised, and both must be flexible. I find Helfrich’s short program essay so appealing, that I reprint it below as a valuable contribution to our understanding of the opera.

The physical production values would have been disastrous if the core elements of the production had not been on such a high level. In general this was an example of the current fashion for mixtures or period and modern details. As it was, dramaturgy and design worked well enough together in front of the inn in the first act, but not in the following act, which relied on a shifting around of the angular, fragmentary walls and windows which made up the set. Interiors were not so bad, but the famous Wolf’s Glen scene missed the mark entirely. Some suggestion of the several almost equally spooky locations which claim to be a model for Weber’s is de rigueur. (In Germany the urge for a total experience goes so far that some of them have been used as backdrops for open air productions.) The male costumes were harmless enough: you could run into people dressed like that in any Vermont village around this time of the year. However, the women’s were downright hideous, ill-fitting and misproportioned. The singers should have refused to put them on, except for Heather Buck, who would look fabulous in anything. I’ve seen these travesties in a number of productions recently, and I fail to understand the rationale for this trend, which is as demoralizing for the audience as it must be for the participants. The only successful effort was Erica Schmidt’s Uncle Vanya at Bard, in which one more or less forgot the present, until someone turned on the stereo, giving us a salutary jolt. In other words, directors and designers should avoid mingling periods unless there’s a real point to it.

The musical and dramatic values had impeccable integrity in this production, but they would have had even more impact if the design had been stronger.


Freischütz in Wolfsschlucht – MyVideo

DIRECTOR’S NOTE

THINKING ABOUT DER FREISCHÜTZ

Max, an expert young marksman with hopes of marriage and a good career, is on the verge of losing an impossibly cruel shooting contest, an ancient tradition in his rural hunting community. If he hits a designated target, he wins a bride and a post as head forester; but if he misses, he gets nothing. Desperate, humiliated, and tricked, he barely hesitates when he is offered the possibility to cheat his fate and win with magical bullets.

Max’s betrothed, Agathe, is also bound to the trial’s outcome: as the daughter of the head forester, she is the prize, and because she genuinely loves Max, the prospect of him missing the shot is a torment too great to bear. Neither has any free will to pursue their love, and their fates are further intertwined with that of Kaspar, an outcast who once loved and was rejected by Agathe, and who seeks to avenge that slight. He hopes to use Max unwittingly to carry out his revenge plot. As the opera begins, all three are in a state of intense anxiety. Looming over all this are two things: ancestral tradition, represented by dusty old portraits hanging on ancient walls, which hold a tight psychic grip on everyone; and the community itself, a nasty group of folks who are ready to mock, to reject, to turn their backs on Max in his worst moment.

For all of its spooky, supernatural, Brothers Grimm-like trappings, what we discovered in Der Freischütz as we developed our production was a surprising, even shocking, amount of psychological insight into the human conscious and subconscious, a contemplation of the nature of cruelty, of hope and fear, of duty, honor, tradition, a story of the nearly psychotic extremes men and women are driven to by their own despair and by circumstance.

Der Freischütz is set deep in the woods, and, throughout folklore, legend, fairy tales, art, the forest has always existed as a psychological space, a place where you confront fears, seek truth, explore. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Sondheim’s Into the Woods to any of countless modern scary movies (The Blair Witch Project comes to mind) the forest is a place where the unknown prevails. And, indeed, this forest is inhabited by two mysterious, unknowable characters : Samiel, or “the dark hunter,”a devil-like figure, and the Hermit, a holy man who offers advice and protection to those who dare seek it (as Agathe does).

These two figures were crucial to the development of our production. Max, in his worst moment, wishes for “magic bullets,” and, along with Kaspar, hopes that Samiel, however terrifying, might provide them. The Hermit gives Agathe protective flowers. Both seem endowed with magic powers. But is Samiel even real? Is the Hermit? Or are they psychic forces? What is their true function? To me, Samiel and the Hermit are symbiotic. Kaspar asks Samiel to aid his revenge plot, but Samiel, the “evil” character, instead turns his bullet on Kaspar himself, and, in his final act, effectively expunges the true evil from the community. The Hermit is a “good” figure, but when he appears, it is to admonish the community and its leaders for having driven Max to want to cheat. In his final act, the Hermit forces an end to the ridiculous shooting competition and a clean break with ancestral tradition. The community, both deeply shamed and newly enlightened, agree, forgiving Max and making the break. Together, the two characters are neither a force of good nor evil, but one of change. In fact, I found this so intriguing that I decided to have one performer play both roles. If Samiel represents fear –fear of change, fear of uncontained passion, fear of weakness, then the Hermit, by appearing to the community as a real, living person, by shaming them and castigating them, makes them confront those fears. This is some of what I found so interesting and challenging about Der Freischütz. As Max, Agathe, and Kaspar pass through quasi-psychotic episodes and agonizing dream states on their way to their respective fates, as the community evolves from cruel, fearful, tradition-bound tormentors to enlightened, forgiving people, as Samiel and the Hermit drive the story toward it’s (not so inevitable) conclusion, the opera yields great rewards. It is a deeply insightful, acutely observant psychodrama, revealing real truths about the human condition. Though its symbols and settings are rooted in 19th century romanticism, the work seems profoundly contemporary. You will be fascinated. —Sam Helfrich

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