The shock of the old
The Elgin Theatre
10/27/2012 - & October 28, 30*, 31, November 2, 3, 2012
Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz
Kresimir Spicer (Max), Meghan Lindsay (Agathe), Carla Huhtanen (Ännchen), Vasil Garvanliev (Kaspar), Michael Nyby (Kilian/Prince Ottokar), Gustav Andreassen (Wise Hermit), Olivier Laquerre (Cuno), Curtis Sullivan (Samiel)
Artists of the Atelier Ballet, Opera Atelier Chorus, The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, David Fallis (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Director), Gerard Gauci (Set Designer), Martha Mann (Costume Designer), Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (Choreographer), Bonnie Beecher (Lighting Designer)
M. Lindsay, K. Spicer (© Bruce Zinger)
A great operatic mystery is the neglect of Weber’s landmark work Der Freischütz from the repertory of companies outside Germany. In North America its history has been very spotty. This is just the second production ever in Canada, the first being by the enterprising Pacific Opera Victoria in 1994. It was presented by Toronto’s Opera in Concert in 1990 as vehicle for Ben Heppner. In the USA it has been performed a grand total of 30 times by the Met, last seen there in 1972. In recent decades it has been performed in Seattle, San Francisco back in 1985 (in concert), and in Portland, Oregon in 1975. Yet it is always cited the springboard of German romanticism and its overture and key arias are frequently performed in concert. Is it really so fatally flawed?
Complicated plots are no barrier to opera being performed - may I cite Simon Boccanegra as just one of many. True, Act I of Der Freischütz contains a degree of spoken explication about the impending shooting contest, but it hardly stops the work dead. Act I also features a character who seems to be of importance (the braggart Kilian) who we never hear from again. The heroine, Agathe, doesn’t turn up until Act II and she turns out to be just a bit tiresomely virginal and fragile, but at least she has a foil in the part of her friend Ännchen (for OA Carla Huhtanen, who shines once again in a pert role). There is quite a lot of piety (very unfashionable these days) at the end; I have seen productions in Germany where this is made to reveal societal hypocrisy. This production, however, accepts all sentiments at face value and not only embraces them but magnifies them with the entire cast’s use of mime and gesture. If this cast were to collectively lose its voice they could probably get the story across with their use of gesture and dance alone.
With respect to dance, the director and choreographer have closely integrated a varied set of dances into the production. They aren’t just divertissements but flow naturally - and even necessarily - from the stage action. Opera Atelier started up as a baroque period ensemble, but twenty years ago moved into the classical era with their first Mozart productions. After adding works by Gluck to their mix, they have now ventured into early romanticism. I was among the sceptics when Der Freischütz was announced and happily admit I was wrong.
What Pynkoski and Lajeunnesse Zingg have done is create a sort of retro gesamkunstwerk undreamt of by anyone in 1821 - or by anyone up until now. Modern German audiences and (especially) the scarily anhedonic critics might well denounce this as kitsch - just as they would a traditional approach to the arch-romantic ballet Giselle. What such a view overlooks is that the distinctive sweep of Weber’s music is incredibly well-served by their unique approach.
The hero of the work is the interestingly conflicted Max. It’s an ideal role for a budding heldentenor which is what Kresimir Spicer (in his fourth role with OA) seems to be. His ample voice resounds wonderfully in the Elgin Theatre. Giving an equally committed performance as the character who leads Max into temptation is Vasil Garvanliev in the role of Kaspar.
The company’s resident designer Gerard Gauci once again displays his enviable talents. The most arresting scene is (as it ought to be) the Wolf’s Glen scene in which the evil demon Samiel (portrayed by Curtis Sullivan as an eerily super-ideal humanoid) helps create the seven magic bullets. The dancers enact the visions Max tells us he sees, then Gauci uses images from the work of Weber contemporary Henry Fuseli that swirl past in a nightmarish rush while the dancers enact correspondingly frenetic movements.
Another magical transformation occurs during Agathe’s dreamy aria “Leise, leise” when her house dissolves and she communes with an ocean of stars. Meghan Lindsay’s voice is ideally suited to this role which, with its echoes of Pamina and foreshadowing of Wagner’s Elsa, is precariously exposed in places.
As far as I know this production is the first to use a period orchestra - in this case regular OA collaborators the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (in its 40-member configuration). It’s perhaps not such a stretch for them as they have been venturing into 19th century repertoire for some time, with works by Beethoven and Chopin. Period specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded Der Freischütz a few years back, but not with his Concentus Musicus Wien. Under David Fallis the Tafelmusik strings have a full, even lush, sound, although some attacks are on the soft side. The crucial horns (valveless) have a few dicey moments but, as their tone has an extra soupçon of dreaminess, all is forgiven.
The chorus has some members on stage and others in a stage box, giving a nifty stereo effect - and, in the Wolf’s Glen scene, a ghostly impression.
Especially in light of the revival of long-overlooked works by Handel and Rossini, the persistent neglect of this work is even more mystifying. If it looks back to Mozart and Beethoven and forward to Wagner, it is still very much a definitive statement by a uniquely accomplished composer.
According to the current listings on Operabase (the most complete record of performance available) this is the only fully staged production of Der Freischütz outside Germany 2011-2014. Opera Atelier has a proud history of travel and I’m sure this production packs neatly into a single container. It would be wonderful if it were to spark a needed revival of this distinctive, gripping work.