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Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz
25 Jun 2007

WEBER: Der Freischütz

Produced by Rolf Lieberman and directed for television by Joachim Hess, this 1968 studio recording of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz has much to recommend as a traditional production of the opera.

Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz.

Edith Mathis (Ännchen), Tom Krause (Ottokar), Hans Sotin (Hermit), Franz Grundheber (Killian), Toni Blankenheim (Kuno), Gottlob Frick (Kaspar), Ernst Kozub (Max), Arlene Saunders (Agathe), Bernhard Minetti (Samiel), Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Hamburg State Opera Chorus: Leopold Ludwig, conductor.

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Performed perhaps less often in North America than in Europe, such a solid presentation of this seminal German opera is welcome on DVD, since it allows audiences not just to hear the work as is possible on CD, but also to view the interaction of the characters on stage. This particular production includes some find singers who are well-known internationally, notably Hans Sotin, Franz Grundheber, and Edith Mathis, who have participated in classic recordings of Romantic repertoire. At the same time, the inclusion of the German actor Berhard Minetti in the speaking role of Samiel allows modern audiences to view one way this role has been effectively rendered on a European stage.

As a television production, the famous overture is not presented with shots from the opera house with images of the conductor, performers, and audience members, but rather, the production makes use of iconography associated with Der Freischütz. The transitions are typical of the time and lack the more nuanced shifts that have become expected of modern productions, yet they help to establish the context for this production. At the beginning of the first act, the details of the production offer a typical German production of the work, with peasant costumes, hunting garb and other accouterments that reinforce the connection of this opera with the vernacular, that is, with the German culture Weber’s day. At the same time, the acting conveys the suspenseful mood of this modern-day transformation of the story of Faust.

Since the source of this video is film and not derived from digital media, the images contain some flicker and, at least once, the dot on the upper right-hand side of the screen that preceded a break for commercials in American television. This is a relatively minor concern, but those accustomed to more recent opera DVDs may notice the character of the reproduction as different in this release, which is one of thirteen operas that Rolf Lieberman produced for television. The color of this film stands out, though, since it resembles the almost glossy tone that was used in commercial films of the 1960s. With the connotation of mainstream cinema for opera, an artform that is often film from the stage and not produced in the studio, the initial impression is somewhat jarring. As with other modes of visual display, it is possible to see past these details and into the fine production captured in this film.

Within this conventional production of Der Freischütz the performances are uniformly fine and even. Predictably, such familiar voices as Sotin, Grundheber, and Mathis give fine and articulate performances. Gottlob Frick offers a fine interpretation of Kaspar that is sinister enough without venturing toward caricature, and even though his pitches tend toward the flat side, his tone is nicely even. With the crucial role of Max, the German singer Ernst Kozub gives a fine performance that matches the lyricism with the inner struggle of his character. His performance at the end of the first act is introspective enough, and with the second act’s Wolf’s Glen scene, he sustains the mood. It releases only with this making the sign of the cross, a gesture that foreshadows the ultimate resolution of Max’s pursuit of the diabolical and his eventual redemption.

With the women, the roles of Agathe and Ännchen are executed well by Arlene Saunders and Edith Mathis. Both of the singers deliver equally fine performances that bring out the lyricism necessary for their roles. There is a hint a bel canto in their approaches to the music, and this stylistic choice is effective. Decades after this production was filmed, Mathis may be a more familiar voice, but Saunders gave a convincing performance as Max’s lover Agathe.

The choice of Hans Sotin as the Hermit is excellent in giving the final scene to such a fine singer. Sotin’s commanding presence is essential to the final scene, which must resolve the drama by meeting justice with mercy and eliminating any doubt about the disposition of the situation. This is an exemplary execution of the role that contributes to the overall success of this production.

Among the various DVDs of Der Freischütz that are currently available, this one conducted by Leopold Ludwig is an excellent one. Not only does this DVD release preserve a classic production, but it also brings to new audiences an outstanding interpretation of the work. Various details contribute to its quality, such as the options for subtitles in German, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. In addition, the accompanying booklet includes a summary of the libretto and a detailed listing of the tracks. Those who have seen a performance of this important nineteenth-century opera will find this to be a fine production of Weber’s Der Freischütz.

James L. Zychowicz

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