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Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 singspiel, Der Freischütz, (literally, "The Free Marksman") is a staple of the European repertoire, and, along with Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the operatic embodiment of romantic nationalism. However, Freischütz, which concerns a village shooting contest rather than a Nuremberg singing competition, is the far darker and ominous work, with more than a tinge of the supernatural. Challenges, therefore, abound.
Freischütz is hard to stage and even harder to perform, but all praise to Melbourne Opera for having the courage to bring it to Melbourne for the first time in almost half a century. Amid the usual procession of Puccini and Verdi, this Weber rarity shines as a beacon of adventurous enterprise.
Despite the cramped confines of the Athenaeum stage and pit, and the theatre's dry acoustic, Saturday's opening performance was musically sound and artistically strong, particularly the fine if necessarily slender Melbourne Opera Orchestra (leader Tatiana Chudnovskaya) and full-blooded chorus (chorus master Raymond Lawrence).
Right from the murmuring strings and the treacherous horn passage that usher in the famous overture, conductor David Kram had the measure of the piece. Kram, even with his small forces, achieved clarity, drama, balance and the sort of playing that neither descended into bombast nor drowned the singers. The result was the right blend of folksiness and eeriness wrought by the composer.
Singing was, for the most part, fine; Geoffrey Harris' English translation helped. Tenor Jason Wasley's stentorian would-be sharpshooter, Max, never tired; nor did bass Steven Gallop's creepy, saturnine Caspar, whose machinations and casting of magic bullets were true to form. Smaller roles were well taken by Manfred Pohlenz (Cuno), Michael Lampard (Kilian) and Roger Howell (Samiel and the Hermit). Sally Wilson's Agathe .... sang her two great arias with grace and distinction.....
The main thing is that an audience mostly unfamiliar with this opera loved it: they cheered it to the rafters. In this, at least, Der Freischütz hit all the right targets.
Reviewed by Michael Shmith
Read more: The Age