Theater an der Wien 2018-19 Season Review: Der Freischütz

Johanni van Oostrum Bites The Bullet To Give A Killer Performance As Agathe

By Jonathan Sutherland

In non-German speaking countries, Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera “Der Freischütz” is a bit of a seltener Vogel. In the past five years, apart from Matthias Hartmann’s memorable production at La Scala in 2017 and Mark Elder’s concert version at the Royal Festival Hall the year before, Anglophone audiences remain largely unexposed to this groundbreaking romantic German opera.

The last staging at Covent Garden was 30 years ago.  “Der Freischütz” at the Met is almost beyond living memory. Sir Colin Davis was a major proselytizer of the work having made two commercial recordings in 1990 and 2012. But without such a champion, Weber’s spooky Singspiel seems destined to remain unknown to Anglo audiences. Perhaps the lengthy dialogue is tiresome for non-German speakers but it’s inventive musical value is irrefutable.

Remaining Faithful

The Wiener Staasoper mounted a bizarre production last year by Christian Räth which apart from nearly sizzling Andreas Schager alive, must be the only staging of an opera explicitly about shooting to be entirely bereft of both blunderbusses and bullets.

Just a hop, skip and a Sprung down the Linke Wienzeile, the Theater an der Wien recently presented a semi-staged version by Olivier Fredj which was much more faithful to Johann Friedrich Kind’s creepy folk-lore libretto. With limited set-structure, but utilizing period costumes and clever lighting, Anglo/French Fredj adroitly managed to capture the Satanic sorcery of the narrative with plenty of scary images plus hunting rifles which actually fired.

The French connection continued with chef d’orchestre Laurence Equilbey and the Paris-based Insula Orchestra and Accentus Choir. With a total running time of just over two hours seven minutes, Equilbey was similar to Leopold Ludwig’s 1968 film version which also cut the Act three Entr’acte and following dialogue. Similarly, Equilbey went straight to Agathe’s melancholy “Ob die Wolke sie verhülle” cavatina. Wolf-Dieter Hauschild’s live recording in 1985 for the reopening of the Semper Oper in Dresden runs slightly longer and re-instates the short jerky orchestral passage.

Carlos Kleiber’s definitive 1973 recording for Deutsche Grammophon makes similar restorations. The biggest variable is Johann Friedrich Kind’s lengthy dialogue, which being of sub-Schiller standard, does not really suffer from a visit to Madame La Guillotine.

Fine Sturm und Drang

Even if “Der Freischütz” in toto is often quarantined in the lands of Hölderlin and Hesse, its Overture is certainly no stranger to international concert halls. Equilbey led her original instrument Insula orchestra with a vivacity comparable to Davis or Janowski but not quite the manic intensity which Rafael Kubelik or Carlos Kleiber brought to the raucous curtain raiser. There was plenty of sturm und drang in the lower strings and the crescendo-diminuendo markings were scrupulously observed. Crisp attack and precise syncopation characterized the tutti passages. First clarinet was especially stellar and bassoon’s almost flatulent injections pithily pungent. The fortissimo conclusion was so fierce it would have frightened the foxes out of the Wolfsschlucht.

As if to the böhmisches Herrenhaus born, Equilbey kept the rhythmic pulse taut throughout the performance. Considering the Insula ensemble and its founder are generally associated with early Mozart, the playing was a revelation. The heavy triple time Ländler peasant waltz was strident and stompy. Winds were reliably chirpy with some especially fine solos from first clarinet and flute. For an opera in which hunting predominates, good horns are a pre-requisite and the raspy Insular brass brought real fire and frisson to Weber’s fascinating score. The orchestra made a major contribution to the Wolf’s Glen scene with frenzied string-searing tremoli. There were also some finely controlled rubati such as the rallentando at “lebe wohl” and contrasting tender lyricism in the sentimental passages.

The Accentus chorus sang with enthusiasm and gusto, although perhaps a tad more décontracté Boulogne-Billancourt than beer-sodden Böhmen. The four Brautjüngfern were suitably sweet although “Schöner grüner Jungfernkranz!” would have benefited from better diction. “Viktoria! Der Meister soll leben” had plenty of punch as did “Laßt lustig die Hörner erschallen!”  The invisible spirits’ eerie “Uhui’s” with screeching winds in the Wolfsschlucht scene were Hitchcock horrifying. The Jägernchor “Was gleicht wohl auf Erden” with its endless “la la la’s” had plenty of macho testosterone although diction was less potent. “Schaut, o schaut!” when it seems Agathe got a bullet in the head as a bridal gift was more precise with correct modulations in dynamics.

Getting Spooky

“Der Freischütz” has eight singing roles and one spooky spoken part of the Black Hunter Samiel. The sinister soul-snatcher was played by dancer, circus performer, juggler and seemingly Gothic Ninja Clément Dazin who under Fredj’s inspired direction, brought palpably diavolo malignity to the part with assiduous physicality.

Max’s taunter Kilian was adequately sung by Anas Séguin who displayed a strong top but not always the clearest intonation. “Schaut der Herr mich an als König” had boyish charm and some strong high E-naturals.

Christian Immler was an appropriately omniscient mystic who also boomed the voice of Samiel over spectral amplification in the bullet-forging scene. “Er oder du” could have been Verdi’s Grand Inquisiteur. Bringing hermetic wisdom to determine Max’s fate, “Wer legt auf ihn so strengen Bann?” had dramatic gravitas with a resonant low B-flat. The Sarastro-like “Leicht kann des Frommen Herz” monologue had a Talvela-ish low A-natural and the fortissimo “Wer höb’ den ersten Stein wohl auf?” was redolent of Jim Bakker televangelist hectoring.

Bringing Justice

Like Don Fernando in “Fidelio,” Prince Ottokar appears in the dénouement to dispense justice and Samuel Hasselhorn brought an imposing stage presence to the role. The young German baritone has a rich, round color to the voice with a particularly strong low register and excellent projection. Hasselhorn’s intonation was generally secure and the low E-natural on “gestehn!” was especially refulgent. Only the semiquaver runs on “So eile, mein Gebiet zu meiden” were not so pristine with the top E-natural fractionally sharp. Obversely, “Nie, nie, empfängst du diese reine Hand!” had Telramund tenacity and the optional top G-natural on “Nein” showed real heldenbariton bravura. There was an impressive softening of color and eloquent phrasing on “ich gehorsam gern” and “wie dich der Greis erfand” was mellifluous.

Bass Thorsten Grümbel was a hearty Head Gamekeeper Kuno. As a native German speaker, he easily colloquialised the lengthy spoken narratives, especially in Act one. Having Osmin, Fasolt and Sarastro in his repertoire the deeper tessitura of the role held no terrors although the low A-natural on “Rohr” in the “O, diese Sonne” trio was surprisingly lacking in resonance. Leading the fugal “Er war von je ein Bösewicht!” Grümbel displayed strong vocal authority.

Deal With the Devil

There is nothing very nice about someone who makes a bargain to sell his soul to the Devil, but on having second thoughts, tries to dupe a chum into taking his place on the Cerberus Express. Bad guys seem to be Russian bass Vladimir Baykov’s speciality, having Klingsor and Gounod’s Méphistophélès also in the repertoire. Whilst his Kaspar was dramatically strong and snarly, intonation and phrasing could have been more accurate as exemplified by the muddied “Nur ein keckes Wagen ist’s” in the Act one trio.

“Hier im ird’schen Jammertal” had a snide malignity but was musically unfocused and the top F-naturals pushed.  “Schweig, schweig” continued the ranting rancor but with some particularly piercing D-naturals. This time the scale passages were even and low A-naturals solido con forza. The macarto minimums on “Nichts kann vom tiefen Fall dich retten” were full of heinous chutzpah. The repeated “Triumphs” mirror Don Pizzaro’s “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” with comparable malignity. Sadly Baykov’s final top E-natural on “Fluch dir!” was noticeably tentative and not held for the stipulated 4 beats. The Wolf’s Glen scene was much more successful with a barmy Baykov counting off the numbers as if Beelzebub running a bingo night in Hades.

Out of Place

Party-girl cousin Ännchen is as out of place in a Bohemian forest as a Cistercian nun would have been in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Previous interpreters have included Edith Mathis and Rita Streich even though Ännchen’s persona is closer to Zerbinetta than Pamina. Swiss/Belgian lyric soprano Chiara Skerath not only fulfilled the dolcissima requirements but added impressive coloratura fireworks as well.

The “Grillen sind mir böse Gäste!”  duet with rapid semi-quaver runs was especially graziosa. “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” was coquettishly delightful with pristine trills, an immaculate B-natural appoggiatura, exemplary diction and a scintillating vocal line reminiscent of Lisa Otto.

The “Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base” Romanza which Weber added specifically for Johanna Eunicke, displayed Skerath’s multiple word painting skills with a gutsy “Der Geist war” worthy of Leyla Gencer. “Trübe Augen, Liebchen, taugen” had the sparkle of vintage Krug with some scintillating roulades and playful interchange with first viola. A few top B-flats were effortlessly knocked off for good measure.

Lost Lovers

The role of the gullible young huntsman Max was sung by Finnish tenor Tuomas Katajala. Closer in vocal color to the more lyrical interpreters such as Gedda or Araiza than heavier heldentenors like Hopf or Seiffert, Katajala brought sensitive phrasing and commendable cantilena to the part.  This is a very clean, forward placed voice with a tenore di grazia dulcet timbre. “O diese Sonne” sounded like René Kollo in his early Braunschweig days. Katajala is particularly strong in the E-natural to G-sharp range and there was lovely vocalization in the “Sonne” trio.

“Durch di Wälder, durch die Auen” was beautifully phrased with consistent rhythmic lilt. Only the fff A-natural on “Gott” was slightly tentative. By contrast, Katajala’s fortissimo sustained G-natural on “Ha” in the Wolfsschlucht scene was as hefty as Hans Hopf. The decision to take the optional low C-natural on “Der Mond verliert von seinem Schein!” instead of the more comfortable higher G-natural was probably unwise. “Doch hast du auch vergeben” in the “Wie, was?” trio had a limpid Tamino-ish cantilena which was repeated in the touching “Herr, unwert bin ich Eurer Gnade” passage.

Weber’s Agathe is hardly the most interesting role ever written for soprano. Even though she survives a painting falling on her head, then a bullet through the bridal wreath, the character remains a bit of a milquetoast maiden in an embryonic Elsa kind of way.

From a musical point of view, it is a role which presents formidable vocal challenges and has attracted such major spintos as Janowitz, Behrens and even the incomparable Birgit Nilsson. Way back in the 1950’s Elisabeth Grümmer was the yardstick but young South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum raises the bar even higher, especially in terms of dramatic credibility. She was certainly much more impressive than Camilla Nyland at the Staatsoper last year.

From the first rich creamy vocal palate in the duet with Ännchen, it was clear that van Oostrum was Königin der Jagd.  A perfectly placed A-natural on “ahnungsvolle” could have been Irmgard Seefried in her prime. “Wie nahte mir der Schlummer” displayed a sensual mid-voice timbre and excellent breath control with dazzling F-sharp, G-natural and G-sharp fermate on “schöne”, “neu” and “Himmel” and a splendid pianissimo on “Zu dir wende Ich die Hände”. “Nachtigall und Grille” had the lightness of one of Max’s golden eagle’s feathers.  The exhilarating “Süß entzückt entgegen ihm” motif was delivered with Janowitz precision but van Oostrum exuberance reaching a booming Brünnhilde B-natural on “entgegen”. The octave drop on “Dort in der Schreckensschlucht?” could have been Ortrud in high dudgeon. “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” was enhanced by a gorgeous cello obbligato and van Oostrum again displayed her velvety vocal colour, impeccable breath control and elegant phrasing. Fabulous floaty top A-flat fermate and downward scale passages on “aller” and “meiner” was Grümmer reincarnated. Another wonderful A-natural came in the closing scene when Agathe extols “O Max!” Bulls-eye for van Oostrum.

Except for Kaspar who probably mutates into a very unfriendly ghost, “Der Freischütz” ends happily ever after. Johann Friedrich Kind’s final chorus proclaims “whoever is pure of heart and guiltless of life may, childlike, trust in the gentleness of the Father” which should warm the cockles of the hearts of any evangelist, TV or otherwise. It is surprising megachurch countries haven’t taken to “Der Freischütz” more enthusiastically.

In the United States, the NRA would be an obvious sponsor.


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