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Posts Tagged ‘Weber's Der Freischütz’

I understand that Weber’s Der Freischütz with its hunter chorus, bridal wreath song and farmers shouting Hussa! may seem extremely kitsch if you happen to be born in Germany. It is considered by many the quintessential German opera, and it is rarely performed outside German-speaking countries (although it is a fundamental work to understand the aesthetics of German opera… and it doesn’t hurt the fact that it is also a masterpiece superior in quality to many works more usually seen in opera houses around the world). This makes the audience hostage to the discomfort of German opera directors who believe that their sacred mission is to save the opera from itself. Hunters singing tra la la la can only be shown if in the context of a joke, not to mention the “embarrass” of allowing a pious hermit warning the audience against the temptations of evil…!  I actually have seen a Freischütz staged by a non-German director, but it seems that he found it too harmless and tried to spice it up, to diastrous effects. In any case, nothing in my experience comes as so ineffective as Michael Thalheimer’s lazy, reluctant, sterile production.

Premiered only last year, Thalheimer’s staging takes place in some sort of black, barely lit conical cave where all scenes look like the Wolfschlucht scene. Actually, the Wolfschlucht scene is probably the one that looks less like the Wolfschlucht scene, for there is no forging going on there. The opening number is actually more scary with farmers shown as zombies carrying dead branches in the dark. When someone is supposed to act, this is understood of performing some sort of contorsions and uncomfortable postures that made the audience laugh. Most of the dialogue is replaced by either nothing or grunts by an omnipresent Samiel who looks like a hoolingan who passed out in the mud. I could go further, but differently from Mr. Thalbach, I would like to spare those who like this opera from this nonsense.

When you think that the single set does not serve any dramatic purpose other than looking invariably spooky, you discover that it has the dubious advantage of working as an acoustic shell, amplifying the chorus to deafening proportions and overshadowing a Staatskapelle in great shape. Conductor Alexander Soddy subscribes the Carlos Kleiber approach (curiously not in the act I Ländler scene), with zipping excitingly clear articulation from his strings and hearty playing from brass instruments. Were it not for the imbalance with the stage and the Schiller-Theater’s extremely dry acoustics, this could have been very close to an orchestral tour de force.

Promoted to the role of Agathe, Dorothea Röschmann offers her customary clear diction and the alertness to the text of a Lieder singer. Even if her voice is warm and sturdy, it is unfortunately unsuited for this part. Her big aria started uncomfortably, seemed to settle for a clean and firm stretta that ultimately tested her sorely in the final bars, a shriek standing for the high b written by the composer. Most surprisingly, the long lines in her act III prayer seemed beyond her possibilities and she seemed to need too many breath pauses to get to the end of any phrase. Only in the closing scene, she seemed in her element, producing rich, velvety sounds without difficulty. Her Ännchen, Evelin Novak offered a commendable performance, coping with the technical demands of her role with abandon and musicianship. A little bit more charm and a more individual tonal quality would have left nothing to be desired. At this point, it seems that Andreas Schager has sung too many Siegfrieds to be truly convincing as Max. Even if the Austrian tenor’s projection is truly extraordinarily clean and forceful, he seemed helpless when facing the needs of softening his tone, producing quieter dynamics or phrasing with poise and expression. His aria sounded unsubtle and occasionally imprecise in what regards intonation and note values. At moments, his tenor seemed edgy or taut, as if he were experiencing some sort of fatigue. The name of Tobias Schabel does not ring a bell, but his performance of the difficult role of Kaspar was very capable. It is not the big voice we are used to hear in the role and it also has some grainy patches, but he sang it with animation, long breath, clear divisions and the right amount of roughness. Jan Martiník was a noble-sounding Hermit, Roman Trekel a firm-toned Ottokar and it was endearing to find Victor von Halem, still admirably resonant, as Kuno. Finally, I must say that Peter Moltzen was, vocally speaking, the best Samiel I have ever heard, speaking his line with the right piercing edge.

 

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Why cannot Max hit his mark anymore? The explanation in the libretto is that Kaspar had him on a spell. OK. Next question: why cannot Kaspar suffer Max and Agathe’s prospects of happiness? Countertenor-turned-stage-director Axel Köhler gives us the obvious answer: post-traumatic stress disorder. Max and Kaspar fought at the Thirty Years’ War, a particularly gruesome conflict that led to devastation, famine and disease. While Max had found hope in his love for Agathe and is understandably uncomfortable with a gun in his hand, Kaspar is a prisoner of battlefield terror and is resentful of having his ex-comrade in arm’s possibility of redemption. In this staging, the war is just over: all sets are ruins, people are clearly edgy and the Wolfschlucht scene does not need supernatural horrors: the memory of what had just happened is far more frightening. The concept is all right coherent, clear and often revelatory, but it is somewhat superficially represented in the Personenregie. Moreover, the anachronistic costumes jar against the Rolf-Liebermann-opera-movie sceneries. Those who have first discovered this opera in Carlos Kleiber’s DGG studio recording would have some trouble in recognizing the same orchestra this evening under the baton of Christian Thielemann. While Kleiber, Jr., had the Staatskapelle Dresden sizzle in bright sonorities and fast tempi, Thielemann works on a dense orchestral sound, his interpretation made from large brushstrokes and focused on contrast of atmosphere, with transitions heavily underlined. With the glamorous help of the Staatskapelle, success was guaranteed: the Wunderharfe’s rich velvety strings enveloped the vigorous brass-and-drums approach, the Semperoper’s uniquely warm acoustics offered an almost Bayreuthian glow and the Sächsische Staatsopernchor sang heartily. The conductor proved to be very kind to his singers, cushioning their voices in rich yet not overwhelming accompaniment in their arias – in return he kept them in tight rein in more rhythmically exacting passages. In her Kiri-Te-Kanawa-like plush lyric soprano, Sara Jakubiak has an ideally appealing voice for the role of Agathe. She sang with affection, sensitivity and good taste. If she wasn’t completely successful, this has to do with perfectible German (and I am not talking about the dialogues) and the fact that she sounds fazed when the least flexibility is required from her (as in the end of Leise, leise). In long, poised lines, she was always in her element and offered a touching Und ob die Wolke. I would be curious to hear her as Arabella. Christina Landshamer (Ännchen) sounds a bit out of sorts in both ends of her range, but other than this sang with charm, spirit and spontaneity. Michael König took a while to warm and could not make much of his aria. He made some beautiful tonal shading in his trio with Agathe and Ännchen, but the tone was too often too open and a bit nasal. It must be challenging to sing Kaspar in the theatre where Theo Adam built the “golden standard” for this role, but Georg Zeppenfeld, maybe as a preparation for his upcoming ambitious Heldenbariton venture (yes, Wotan…), more than met the challenge. This was a truly exciting performance: the voice firm and dark over the complete range, the text crispy and clear, the dramatic intentions perfectly understood and rendered, the dialogues exemplarily handled, the acting fully mastered. Bravo. In comparison, Andreas Bauer’s Hermit sounded quite woolly and prosaic. Adrian Eröd had no problem with the high tessitura of the role of Prince Ottakar, Albert Dohmen was an imposing Kuno, Sebastian Wartig took the limited opportunity offered by the role of Killian to show an interesting voice and real acting talent and all bridesmaids were competently cast.

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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 “success 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 it. 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 accommodate 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 straitjacket-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 too 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 accordingly 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 overlook the wobbling, but after some minutes I changed my mind.

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Weber’s Der Freischütz is rightly considered the most German among German operas – maybe therefore a natural work for Regietheater directors. Considering the libretto’s elaborate scenic instructions, one can always claim that the only way to stage it at all is making a series of adaptations, provided one is able to keep the contrast with heimlich and unheimlich which lies in the core of what Der Freischütz is about. In this sense, Alexander von Pfeil’s 2007 staging for the Deutsche Oper piles up both natural and supernatural aspects of the work rather than setting them apart in contrasted atmospheres, an original idea. As devised by Mr. von Pfeil, the opera has only one set – a ballroom in something of a hunting club in the 50’s. There is an opposition of masculine elements – sexy posters with girls on the walls, guns all over the place and hunting trophies – and feminine ones: a series of huge crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, a praying corner. Everbody is completely drunk, frenetically dancing and acting sillily. Only the main characters seem to be sober: Agathe and Kuno are concerned about Max, Max is concerned about work, Ännchen is concerned about Agathe and Kaspar is concerned about his plan. Among the intoxicated men and women, three apes apear invisible to anyone but the audience.  Then a man in black t-shirt and jeans who acts in an animal-like way appear. Agathe seems to feel his evil presence, but no-one else. It is Samiel. While the forging of the bullets is supposed to happen in the Wolfschlucht, here the ballroom is transformed in a place of horror through lighting, a magic circle of empty wine bottles and smoke. Plus the apes. The bottles  would be later replaced by shoeboxes when Agathe sings her prayer among women who help her wedding ceremony.  Although nothing really impressive happens here, the permanent set looks interesting and a discrete but palpable ominous atmosphere is kept throughout. I would only wish that the Wolfschlucht scene had some surprises in reserve.

Ulrich Windfuhr’s lackadaisical conducting did not add the last ounce of excitement to make this colourful score sparkle – the overture did not receive the “symphonic” treatment is cries for and, during the performance, many instances of untidy playing occured. Again, the Deutsche Oper Orchester has a noble string section who kept its refulgence in the soft accompaniment of Agathe’s arias – but the blending of all sections did not always happen in a coherent manner.  Beside various displays of abilities from many of its members, the house chorus sang their famous hunters and bridemaids’ numbers con gusto.

In the difficult role of Agathe, Michaela Kaune sang with affection, tenderness and good taste. She seems to be in one of those moments in a singer’s career when one really does not know what lies ahead. Her lyric soprano has an attractive creamy quality and floats beautifully, but maybe some heavy usage has robbed her of any spontaneity above mezzo forte, when the voice looses focus and acquires a smoky and colourless quality. I hope she understands the message from nature and stays within the limits of lyric soprano repertoire in the future.  Martina Welschenbach’s bell-toned soprano is taylor-made for Ännchen – the voice is very pretty and flexible, her top notes are full-toned and she is extremely vivacious. When it comes to Clemens Bieber’s Max, his big aria was coldly received by the audience, mainly because of a recessed high register, unflowing and lacking resonance. That said, if one likes Peter Schreier’s (otherwise far more penetrating in his top notes) Max, one would find interest in Bieber’s boyish, pleasant-toned and ultimately Mozartian performance. Jörn Schümann had everything to be a very good Kaspar – the darkness of tone, the control over a long range, the intensity of utterance – but his voice is two sizes smaller than the role and  he had to work hard to cut through the orchestra. Ante Jerkunica’s bass was a bit too slim to produce the right paternal effect, but the production shows him rather like a TV preacher than a benign hermit anyway. Small roles were all cast from strength. The menace in Prodromos Antoniadis’s Samiel was reduced to his powerful and varied speaking voice – the whole ape-like coreography devised for the role was more curious than frightening. In the end, the invisible but omnipresent apes – far more circunspect than the humans in this production – were far more effective.

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