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Review by Darcy Carroll
Melbourne Opera has commenced their 2015 season in a spirited fashion with the first performance of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (The Marksman) at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Spirited is, I feel, quite the apt descriptor in this instance, as Weber's work seems to revel in all things spiritual and magical. From demonic rituals to magic bullets, precognitive dreams to wise old sages, this yarn is certainly one of heightened fantasy that could have very easily become lost inside its own melodrama. It is a relief then that the cast and creative team have managed to weave this twisting narrative into such a cohesive and stylistically interesting production.
This success is due in large to the bold artistic vision of director Suzanne Chaundy and her creative team. Eschewing what would be considered a traditional setting for a 19th century German opera of this type, Chaundy imbued her production with all the hallmarks of German expressionism. Christina Logan-Bell disfigures the world that protagonist Max inhabits with a set comprised of distorted and jagged geometric shapes. This imposing backdrop is accentuated by a stark black and white colour scheme which effectively highlighted the character's angst and despair in the knowledge of his impending trial. The design was enhanced by the implementation of shadows, lighting and projection which heightened the dramatic impact of the supernatural elements (no spoilers here, folks!).
Jason Wasley served as a commanding and suitably sympathetic leading man in his portrayal of Max. Equipped with a pleasantly strong and well grounded tenor voice, Wasley was a joy to watch as he explored the inner turmoil of a man caught between his better judgement and the desire to win the hand of his beloved at any cost. Equally strong was soprano Sally Wilson's performance as the timid yet wilful Agathe. Wilson's voice rang beautifully, especially during her introspective pianissimo phrases. At times in the upper register the diction was unclear but the emotional conviction with which Wilson delivered the text was riveting. Other highlights in the line-up were Andrea Creighton as Agathe's reassuring, light-hearted and often humorous cousin Ännchen, and Steven Gallop as the deliciously wicked Caspar.
The chorus were in fine form, adding a vibrant energy to proceedings with their lively interactions and enthusiastic singing. At some points, however, their sheer numbers resulted in a somewhat cramped performance space. There were also a few small timing niggles, especially during the famous Hunter's Chorus. However I feel that those slips can largely be attributed to opening night jitters as overall the chorus was extremely passionate and effective.
The score itself was deftly handled by experienced conductor and champion of the German music genre David Kram in conjunction with the Melbourne Opera Orchestra. From the stalls the orchestra was able to make the space feel both intimate and grand as it ran the gamut, from sombre, reserved accompaniment to sweeping romantic motifs. A particular musical highlight was the first scene of act three, ‘The Wolfs Glen’, a chiefly instrumental scene that, for me, involves some of the most emotionally affecting music that one is ever likely to hear in opera.
At its core, Melbourne Opera has achieved an excellent interpretation of this criminally overlooked romantic classic and it is certainly well worth experiencing.