Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz was sensational at its première in 1821 and quickly became an international phenomenon rivaled only by the operas of Rossini. Although Freischütz was in several respects anticipated by Louis Spohr’s Faust and E.T.A. Hoffman’s Undine, Weber’s transitional Singspiel endures for its impressive use of local color, rousing choruses, and of course, what is still considered one of the greatest musical evocations of the supernatural: the Wolf’s Glen Scene. Still a "national monument" in Germany, Der Freischütz is rarely staged elsewhere (though the Paris Opéra mounted a production of Hector Berlioz’s French version in 2011), enhancing this concert’s high profile.
Of course, the fact that Sir Colin Davis—arguably one of the most insightful conductors alive—was conducting the London Symphony Orchestra didn’t hurt that profile either. Both were in top form. One does not see Davis enthusiastically waving his arms around or hear him making too-audible inhalations, as some conductors do; rather, it is clear that Davis’s magic is in his fantastic preparation of the soloists, orchestra, and choir. The overture, for example, was sparking with his influence; it was almost as though he was throwing his own magic bullets. Although as a whole the orchestra worked together very well, special recognition must go to the French horns, the section that played all that German Volksmusik especially well.
All the soloists were equally well prepared and efficient as an ensemble. Christine Brewer got off to a shaky start, but she eventually warmed up her mammoth voice and transported all during her third act cavatina (Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle), surprisingly not with her volume but finessed pianissimos. Her voice really is too large for the Barbican, yet she still does a great job of balancing with the other singers. Equally paired with her was the tenor Simon O’Neil as Max. O’Neil’s voice is bright and silvery, and it is a fantastic vehicle for some of Max’s difficult music. The heldentenor glides into his upper range with seeming effortlessness; his control of dynamics in "O diese Sonne" was also particularly impressive.
Lars Woldt, as Kaspar, was frightening in his presentation. He did wonderfully with his declamatory phrases and his diction was excellent but his voice was a bit pressed at times. The best legato singing during the evening went to Martin Snell and Gidon Saks both of whom where spinning lines that would have made Rumplestiltskin weep, though Snell had a few intonation issues. Marcus Farnsworth sang a very enthusiastic Killian and had an enviable presence on stage. Sally Matthews, as Ännchen, was by far the most entertaining singer of the evening, though. Not only did she make far more of an effort to be dramatically engaging than both O’Neil and Brewer, but her voice is one of rare beauty. Add to that serious artistic gravitas and you have a great singer, leagues above the rest.
The ensemble of soloists was fantastic, but kudos must go to the London Symphony Chorus also. Their "Victoria! der Meister soll leben" was a colossal wall of sound, expertly blended and with consonants ending in all the right places (95% of the time, in any case). One must question the logic behind giving the male chorus members funnels to sing into in order to imitate off-stage sounds, though. This merely enhanced certain weaker members of the choir, and was a mistake.
This was a rare performance of a rarer opera that went off without a hitch.