Weber: Der Freischütz

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus

3 June 2009 3 stars

Der FreischutzIn feverish anticipation of the glittering premiere of Weber's masterpiece, the first truly romantic opera opening the twin floodgates for this genre in the hands of Wagner and Berlioz held this normally so placid spa in its grip for weeks.

The popularity of and love for this work largely contributed to a unique operatic tradition, in which the performance of Der Freischütz in every single one of the 80 opera houses in Germany formed the first introduction to opera for generations of opera lovers.

The fact that in the course of almost two centuries the rickety old boat had gathered a thick layer of barnacles, moved the ever-enterprising Intendant of the Festspielhaus, Andreas Moelch-Zebhauser, to join forces with Robert Wilson to present this work in an entirely new light. Some opera lovers who are, albeit vaguely, familiar with the somewhat unconvential views of Wilson, a walking multicoloured Gesamtkunstwerk of his own creation, and who experienced his versions of Parsifal, Butterfly, Magic Flute, Lohengrin and Aida, looked forward to his latest venture, already years in preparation after his notorious Black Rider, based on a story gleaned from the libretto of Der Freischütz, with some prejudiced anxiety.

Der FreischutzEvents, at least for opera lovers who attach more importance to the wishes of composers in the presentation of their operas than Wilson is prepared to grant them, saw their fears realized when the performance, glittering as a social occasion in more ways than the 1,300,000 glass slivers so generously provided by Swarovski to cover every square inch of the costumes, took place in a glare of publicity.

Two worlds clashed in this presentation. In one, Thomas Hengelbrock, a young conductor, highly respected researcher and presenter of baroque music, selected to take over the prestigious North German Radio Orchestra in Hamburg in 2010 from Dohnanyi and to conduct Tannhäuser in Bayreuth in 2011, reviewed the score and restored it as near as it was still possible to Weber's original.

He also had the spoken dialogue, always a weak but necessary feature of the opera, somewhat shortened and brought in line with modern usage. Apparently limitless, privately sponsored financial means, allowed weeks of intensive rehearsals with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which under the guidance of Daniel Harding has become one of the most omnipresent teams to appear at major festivals and recording studios, and which can count on the constant advice and sponsorship of Claudio Abbado.

Hengelbrock specialises in employing contemporary instruments even when presenting operas by Verdi. In this presentation, only the flutes and the numerous natural horns, so brilliantly employed in the hunt scenes, were played on instruments available to Weber. It was Weber who inspired Wagner in his mastery of the offstage massed horn episodes (one must think only of the second act of Tristan to see the influence in action).

Der FreischutzAn equally efficient and well disciplined Philharmonia Chor Wien generously allowed themselves to be costumed in extravagant but meaninglessly silly garb, performing in the rousing and ever popular Huntsmen Chorus scene in a manner literally copied from one of Monthy Python's clumsy oafs. The possibly intended but misplaced irony in this, and many other scenes, only puffed away in clouds of shallowness.

The cast, handpicked by Hengelbrock, were all highly experienced and internationally engaged singers, most of them already familiar to this website through their appearances at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. They had to contend with costumes that were not only extravagant, but Juliane Banse as Agathe had to wear one weighing 12kg that took dozen seamstresses several weeks to complete, using 60 different plants reproduced in various textile materials and, of course, having tens of thousands of Swarovski glass splinters applied to them.

Der FreischutzMax was sung by Steve Davislim, an Australian tenor with a mellifluous voice who performed bravely, weighed down by a costume consisting of 200 imitation oak tree leaves encircling his upperbody so that his face, covered, like all other performers, in white makeup, could be seen only peering out of the beehive all around it.

All the performers, including the entire chorus and dozens of extras, all dressed in a variety of costumes that did not appear to have even by dint of distant associations anything to do with Der Freischütz, wore red shoes and black stockings and had to engage in a mincing, traipsing walk, reminding a critic of John Cleese's Silly Walk from Monthy Python. Halfway through that marvellous overture, played with vigour coupled with extraordinary sensitivity, four maidens had already traipsed through the darkened stage, outlined against a giant backcloth on which strikingly beautiful colours kept changing throughout the performance to serve as an illustration of the feelings of the protagonists, who were not allowed by Wilson to show any sentiment by facial expression, and were instructed in minute details to bend or raise arms and hold them motionless, like in a puppet theatre. It is well known that Wilson is much influenced by Kabuki theatre procedures.

Der FreischutzThe four maidens had to lift a leg after three tiptoed steps, reminding me of how dogs celebrate the nearness of an inviting lamp post. And all this halfway through the overture, one of the glories of Weber's powers of orchestration and expression in musical terms of the dichotomy between gentle happiness and doom-laden tragedy. Having thoroughly prepared myself for the intricacies of the rather absurd libretto, I realized only after the performance that the maidens were to present roses to the Hermit, dressed in a costume made up of 200 lenghts of chains, and wearing a white beard so long that it reached beyond the ground in front of his red shoes and ask his blessing. The blessed roses play an important part later in averting doom from Agathe, but I wonder how many patrons in the packed house knew what the the maidens traipsing in and out, dutifully lifting a leg after every three steps, were meant to signify.

It would be irresponsible to hark relentlessly on the many absurdities of this production, because there was much to admire in the clockwork precision with which lighting, stage machinery handling the cutout scenery and the superbly controlled choreography of entries and exits were co-ordinated , making one feel that Wilson, amongst many of his great theatre-making talents, also possesses a Tarnhelm, with which he can make entries and exits appearing invisibly out of darkness simply by brilliantly controlled and constantly changing light effects. The photos accompanying this short report will illustrate better than my lapidary descriptions of what filled the enormous stage.

There were indeed two worlds clashing in this performance and running in uncoordinated parallel. One was Hengelbrock's interpretation, ranging from the most subtle and delicate to the uproriously blatant, with superb solos by the principals, notably a wonderful cello solo in Agathe's great aria, coupled with a viola solo with which Weber also made history as it served to rehabilitate the viola as a solo instrument and inspired Berlioz to create Harold in Italy. Nobody has looked down on the viola ever since as an instrument for failed violinists. On the stage was a fine cast, singing with a will against the restrictions imposed on their performance by the rigid code of Wilson's minimalism of expression and enforced frigid gesticulation.

Der FreischutzWilson himself said in numerous interviews and press conferences that we have to close our ears better to see and close our eyes better to hear. When closing my eyes, I enjoyed a great work, beautifully sung and accompanied by a fine orchestra and a most knowledgeable and conscientious conductor. Alas, when opening my eyes, I was again and again confronted with a second world of a brilliant panto, wonderfully presented in all its incoherence. It was as if the master himself sat at the consoles and directed this feast of lightening wonders, but in an ever-increasing conviction that for all his erudite defence for his views and wilful concepts in presenting operas, I was not only not persuaded, but remained doggedly conservative and wished that producers would avoid the temptation to improve the composer's creation.

Two packed houses with 5000 patrons greeted the show with thunderous applause and the splendid receptions afterwards did not allow for grumblings by notorious philistines, like this reviewer. It remains to be seen whether the worldwide publicity through ARTE's simultaneous TV presentation of this production will increase the numbers of opera lovers who are open to Robert Wilson's concepts, up to now unaffected by not always uniform praise by critical opinion. He continues to bask in the limelight, and never lacks commissions to direct operas in the leading houses of three continents - an Emperor who can successfully cover some naked patches in his clothes.

By Francis Shelton

Photo credits: Lesley Leslie-Spinks


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