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Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz or The Marksman (1821, Berlin) is a pivotal piece in German opera history and performance practice. On one hand, it is known as a seminal piece of German Romantic opera. It had an ardent initial reception with a pronounced national sentiment, notwithstanding the strong influence of French opéra comique. On the other hand, the opera has prompted experimentations with staging techniques, particularly of the famous second act finale or the casting of magic bullets in the Wolf’s Glen.
One could certainly claim that the success of any production of this opera would depend on the staging of the Wolf’s Glen scene. It is also most certain that Der Freischütz demands a concept that will distance it from a realistic representation of a Schützenfest (shooting fair) in Bohemia at the end of the Thirty Years War in order to appeal to the imagination and expectations of contemporary Australian audiences.
An ingenious concept is the key to a successful production by Melbourne Opera which premiered at the Athenaeum Theatre on 31 January 2015. This Australian adaptation draws on modern technology. The compelling vision of director Suzanne Chaundry in collaboration with young artists Christina Logan-Bell (set), Zoe Scoglio(video design), Scott Allan (lighting) and Daniel Harvey(costumes) is reinforced by Geoffrey Harris’ new English translation in which Australian undertones are not missing and a music interpretation that respects the German style of the original score. Conductor David Kram, who is well-versed in German repertoire, directed the orchestra into stimulating renditions of hits such as the Huntsman chorus, well-paced ensembles and intense obbligato recitatives. All dialogues and sung numbers were delivered in English with good diction and declamation, and an apparent emphasis on dramatic characterisation.
The Freschütz fable explores universal themes. The main protagonist Max is overcome with anxiety and self-doubt in the lead-up to a shooting competition that would win him the status of chief forester and the hand of his belovedAgathe. His marksman skills are failing him and he is ready to accept anything but failure, succumbing to Caspar’s offer of a magic bullet that always hits the desired mark. Little does he know that powerful and destructive forces are at play and he is putting his and Agathe’s life in danger?
The story is centred on psychological turmoil by juxtaposing right with wrong, good with evil, and human weakness with redemption. Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto after J. A. Apel and F. Laun’s Gespensterbuch (Ghost Book) depicts this human condition through an exploration of opposing worlds: the pastoral idyll of German country life maintained by the good will and judgement of the Hermit and the abode of evil in the dark forest where Samiel dwells. Weber used contrasting harmonic colours, newly created German folk tunes and colourful instrumentation, and exploited the spooky and bizarre elements of the story which makes the opera intriguing.
In this production, these contradicting narrative elements are rendered visually in an interplay of light and shade inspired, according to the director, by early twentieth century psychology’s investigations into the unconscious mind, German horror films and expressionist art. The sets are dominated by the geometrical shapes of mountain tops and trees, while the costumes are in black and white cut in the styles German national folk dress and urban 1930’s fashion.
In the Wolf’s Glen scene, this neutral and static backdrop animates into a myriad of colours and forms as projections and lighting effects come into play. This creates the desired effect while not breaking the bank – a necessary condition in any opera venture today. Coupled with the strength of Weber’s orchestral colour, the vigorous performance of the Melbourne Opera Chorus and Orchestra, and the audio processed voice of an invisible Samiel(Roger Howell), the Wolf’s Glen scene was visually satisfying to a modern spectator.
Steven Gallop was most convincing as the cunning and conniving villain Caspar. Aided by effective make-up and costume, he revealed a multilayered character that is dangerous and vulnerable at the same time. Andrea Creighton’s Ännchen was bubbly, humorous and melodramatic while delivering with ease Weber’s tricky vocal lines. Andrian McEniery sang the role of Ottakar with a vibrant and brilliant baritone voice powered by a noble and dominant stage presence. Manfred Pohlenz’s Cuno was very realistic, commanding and paternal, and in a very good voice. Roger Howell’s Hermit was so solid both vocally and histrionically that I yearned to have seen more of him, regretting Weber’s decision of cutting the initial scenes in Kind’s libretto between Agathe and the Hermit.Jason Wasley’s Heldentenor is exciting and promising. His take on Max was sincere but would work even better if he displays more distress during the Wolf’s Glen scene and when Max seems to have lost Agathe in the last act. The rest of the main cast performed well.
The best singing on the night came from Sally Wilson (Agathe). Her full-bodied soprano moves with ease, creating pure ecstasy for the listener. Her rendition of the aria ‘Und ob die Wolke’ at the beginning of the third act was the culmination of this performance. It delighted with poise, floating pianissimos and deep emotion and was complemented by an equally sensitive orchestral accompaniment. Her Agathe is not driven by the Romantic ideal of a pure German maiden but is a down-to-earth modern girl who is worried about her beau and anxious on the night before her wedding. Her physical presence is very strong. Her eyes and face are very expressive and her facial profile majestic. Her tall and slender body – a body that models would envy let alone opera singers – is a great asset. It could be absolutely arresting in serious roles if care is taken to work with proportions on her costumes and body movement. Asymmetrical limbs, slightly open and lifted elbows with classical finger positions would create grace and beauty to match her strong vocal tone in heroic roles.
The premiere of Weber’s Romantic opera Der Freischütz by Melbourne Opera demonstrates that steering away from the main Australian operatic repertoire can be both satisfying for artists and thrilling for spectators. The crucial ingredient in this production was the successful translation of the German Romantic opera into a spectacle that is visually captivating and marked by narrative clarity that is suited to modern Australian audiences.
The heritage ambience and small size of the Athenaeum theatre was the perfect venue for this performance. It was almost filled with an informed audience that expressed their excitement and appreciation at the end of numbers and applauded eagerly at the end.
Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia