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Into the woods

09/10/1999 -  and 15, 18, 22, 24, 30 september, 2, 5, 8, 15 october 1999
Carl Maria von Weber Der FreischŘtz
Ashley Holland (Ottokar), Mark Richardson (Kuno), Alwyn Mellor (Agathe), Lisa Milne (─nnchen), Gidon Saks (Kaspar), John Daszak (Max), Andrew Greenan (Hermit), Christopher Booth-Jones (Kilian) Ian McDiarmid (Voice of Samiel) Mark Elder (conductor) David Pountney (director) ENO Chorus, ENO Orchestra

Der Freischütz could be the perfect work, or a hound's breakfast. It presents a basic story of a good but weak man who deals with evil because he lacks confidence that he will succeed on his own, and who is rescued by God's mercy and the love of a good woman. (The recorded presence in this production of Darth Sidious hisself as Samiel is an amusing reminder that this is roughly the known plot of Star Wars.) But it's part way between a Romantic study of the trials of love and a Grimm fairy tale. The lovers talk about love, at sometimes tedious length but there's not much evidence of what they see in each other. Their love is a given of the plot which is more interested in forging magic bullets and shooting mysterious birds. Similarly, the music includes both attractive ensemble that could come from Fidelio (though without quite the emotional impact and dramatic relevance) and atmospheric orchestrations that are half way to Wagner. It's all good stuff if the performers and director can make it hold together, but getting the tone right can be difficult.

David Pountney's new production is the first of Der Freischütz at the ENO and the first new production of an ambitious ENO season which aims to beat the re-opened Royal Opera House at its own game. Pountney takes the different strands for what they are and weaves them together into a slightly puzzling, often slow-moving dream-like effect which probably hits the target. The self-consciously German setting is reflected in the in-period Trachten costumes and a fairy-tale cottage backdrop, but there is no cute hunter's house, towering cliff or any other attempt to imitate the romantic paintings that Weber had in mind. Some of this could be simple economy but it also allows a focus on the characters which pretty much comes off. This is the sort of production that needs work for every revival, but like Jonathan Miller's Rosenkavalier, which seems to be having yet another successful outing, it has enough substance to adapt to a range of future resources.

There was a slightly strange mixture of minimalism and grand effect. The Wolf's Glen is of course critical to any production, but there was no special set, except for Kaspar's anvil in a hollow downstage. The wild hunt was the same old chorus with Prussian helmets, gasmasks left over from Lehnhoff's Parsifal and bayonets, plus a naked woman and some dramatic lighting. But there was a huge moon, with craters but broken away on one side to show it was made of wood, that appeared for Agathe's song to the moon and remained until the end of the act. And there were metallic butterflies hanging all over the stage which rose and lowered for no obvious reason, and which became spooky flying things in the dark while the bullets were cast.

Agathe is present almost throughout, entering with the painting as Max shoots the eagle, lying on stage for the rest of the first act, and lifted up on a stage segment that becomes her house for the second act. She is then, in a trance, the abused focus of the bullet-making in the Wolf's Glen. This seems to be a reminder that the story has aspects of Sturm und Drang, that Agathe comes close to being destroyed by a weak but demanding lover, like Margarete in Faust or Marie in Wozzeck.

Alwyn Mellor was a solid, intense Agathe who didn't seem fragile enough, but who added value to her big arias. Lisa Milne as Ännchen came close to overshadowing her at times, though. There wasn't quite enough contrast in their age, appearance (both are chunky and fair) or vocal heft, and Ännchen seemed to have a lot more music than Agathe. Milne made Ännchen a suitably healthy girl, just avoiding being saccharine in her acting and singing.

Kaspar was similarly a conventional bully, clearly driven to dealing with Samiel from a similar lack of confidence to Max's. In a coup de theatre, he revealed a black wing which he suddenly wrapped around Max, instead of his right arm, to represent the fallen eagle in act one. Gidon Saks was splendidly sinister in appearance and voice, but he had a strange (Birmingham? Manchester?) accent that suggested an urban wide boy.

John Daszak as Max was a bit of a problem. His singing was sweet enough in his lyrical passages, and he was suitably anxious throughout. But his limp manner and actorly received pronunciation in the middle of an assortment of regional accents made his character less substantial than it needed to be for us to worry about him. In fact, there was a strong risk of Kaspar taking over the drama.

Mark Elder and the ENO orchestra emphasised the pictorial aspects of the score rather than any potential Wagnerian sweep. Some of the singers were drowned, perhaps as a result of a slope in the stage, but also just because the balance with the orchestra hadn't been worked out yet.

H.E. Elsom



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