This year’s Baden-Baden Pfingfestspiele’s main feature is Bob Wilson’s staging of Weber’s Der Freischütz, to this day a favourite with German audiences (I mean, you have to put up with many a sing-along member of the audience in the next seat). As always, this opera is a favourite for interventionist stagings, but having an American director who has been applying the same “sucess formula” for decades could hardly be the answer to the search of novelty in such a well-loved and often-staged work. The truth is that Wilson’s highly stylized production sanitized the opera of all possibility of expression. Singers and chorus-members behaved like mechanical dolls, the stage action tempo was kept at very slow space and the geometrical sets were ingenious but rather blank. If I had to single out a very poor moment in the whole show, this would be the “black mass” presided by Samiel invented to distract the audience while the sets were being changed for the Wolfschlucht scene, the merit of which was, at least, trying – for the one and only time in the whole concept – to depict the original stage instruction. In the rest of the opera, even dialogues were adapted to justify the director’s fancies.
Modern audiences, however, are used to be visually frustrated and have learnt to take refuge in the musical performance. Not here. The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden has particularly dry acoustics and having the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit was a self-defeating solution. The orchestral sound could never blossom, both higher and lower ends of the aural spectrum were very restricted, valveless brass instruments were tested by the circumstances and the much demanded French Horn players had the worst time of their lives. To make things worse, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has poor control of ensembles, is careless about polish, has a fancy for pointless rit. and acc. effects – he seems like the Bizarro’s world version of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The real world’s Harnoncourt has indeed recorded Freischütz with… the Berliner Philharmoniker, a hint Hengelbrock should have taken. No offense to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a praiseworthy ensemble when the circumstances allow. As a compensation, the Philharmonia Chor Wien offered clear and well-balanced sounds throughout.
The acoustics had also a negative effect on soloists, draining their voices of resonance. In order to accomodate that, the conductor had a second reason to turn down the orchestra’s volume. As a result, arias such as Leise, leise almost sounded a capella. Nevertheless, my guess is that Bob Wilson’s straightjacket-like stage direction made singers ill at ease and that sort of thing obviously has an influence in their vocal performance. One could almost feel the moment when they were starting to find some animation, but then they remembered that they should stand still or walk like an Egyptian. Having graduated to big lyric role, Juliane Banse never failed to produce firm and velvety tone. She handled her big aria most commendably, but failed to produce the mezza voce required by Agathe’s prayer. On the other hand, the lovely Julia Kleiter was an ideal Ännchen whose acknowledged stage talents was wasted in this production. Steve Davislim’s Max worked at his best in purely lyrical passages, where his ease to produce soft head tones were most helpful. Otherwise, the role seemed to low for his voice and the more dramatic passages tested him sorely. Although Clemens Bieber’s performance in Berlin was far less varied, he offered far more solid singing in comparison. As the director gave Dimitry Ivashchenko more freedom of movement, he accordinly seemed the most spontaneous singer in the cast. His ease with passagework helped him when Hengelbrock decided to play each couplet in his drinking son increasingly faster. For a singer who usually sings Sarastro, he deals with the higher tessitura with some comfort, but, in this hall, his voice could be a bit more forceful (or maybe I am spoiled by Theo Adam in Carlos Kleiber’s recording). When Paata Burchuladze opened his mouth and such a voluminous voice finally conquered the difficult acoustics, I felt I could oversee the wobble, but after some minutes I changed my mind.