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Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz
14 May 2009

Weber’s Der Freischütz at Zurich Opera House

On any list of great but seldom-performed operas, Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz must rank high.

Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz

Ottokar: Chenye Davidson; Kuno: Werner Gröschel; Agathe: Inga Nielsen; Ännchen: Malin Hartelius; Kaspar: Matti Salminen; Max: Peter Seiffert; A Hermit: László Polgár; Kilian: Volker Vogel; Samiel: Raphael Clamer. Zurich Opera House Chorus. Zurich Opera House Orchestra. NIkolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Ruth Berghaus, director. Hartmut Meyer, set design. Marie-Louise Strandt, costumes.

Arthaus Musik 107011 [2DVDs]

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Its combination of lush early Romanticism and German folk tale, both grim and gay, doesn’t seem to register outside of its native country. The score mostly lives on in frequent playings by classical radio stations of the magnificent overture. But there is much, much more great music in this score, and any production that manages to draw an audience into the eerie world of the opera deserves respect.

This 1999 staging by Ruth Berghaus has appeared on DVD before, and Arthaus Musik is to be thanked for this re-release. A traditional staging might work, but it would have to be done with remarkable taste. The vaguely Faust-like story centers on a failure of a hunter, Max, who wants to win the hand of Agathe. Kaspar owes his soul to a devil figure, Samiel, but Kaspar hopes to manage his escape by tricking Max into taking his place. To ensnare Max, Kaspar produces magic bullets that can help Max earn Agathe’s respect as a hunter. At the climax, Kaspar thinks he has manipulated Max into shooting Agathe, but instead, he ends up taking the last magic bullet himself.

Berghaus employs some of the familiar tropes of regie-theater, including men in overcoats and fedoras and a stark set of golden-hued floor and walls. The set shifts into various conformations, with a pit appearing at one point, as well as shifting ramps and an opening high up on one wall for Agathe to appear in before the final shot. The audience takes awhile to settle into Barghaus’s vision, and when Max’s first shot with a magic bullet produces a veritable avalanche of black feathers, chuckles are heard. Soon the off-kilter set and stylized movement cohere into a vision of a foreign yet familiar world, one that suits both the folk nature of the tale and the supernatural elements.

An excellent cast gives itself over to Berghaus’s vision. Matti Salminen dominates as Kaspar, his weighty yet never ponderous bass managing to be both avuncular and ominous as necessary. The leads in a tale such as this tend to be anonymous creatures, but both both Peter Seiffert as Max and Inga Nielsen as Agathe find interesting angles, under the direction of Berghaus. Seiffert’s anxious Max appears as an outsider to the mainstream of village life from the start, an early version of the “misunderstood bad boy” James Dean supposedly invented. Although the libretto doesn’t provide much interaction between the two romantic leads — they don’t even appear together until the middle of act two — Nielsen and Seiffert both suggest the torment of their thwarted romance. Although she is done no favors by the close-ups, Nielsen sings youthfully, except for a tendency for extended high notes to lose tone. Malin Hartelius, as Agathe’s friend Ännchen, however, steals her scenes with the heroine, employing a rich, warm mezzo.

The appearance of the Mephistopheles character, Samiel, produces a suitable chill, and the entire Wolf’s Crag scene manages to be, if not exactly scary, disturbingly weird. Berghuas still respects the intimate moments of the opera, such as Agathe’s second act aria, by letting the focus remain on the singer and not introducing distracting stage business.

The excellent sound captures some audience noise, but nothing too detrimental. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has a reputation for idiosyncratic tempos, but his reading here is well-paced and colorful.

To all but those utterly resistant to non-traditional stagings, this Der Freischütz can be considered a DVD classic. Pick it up if you missed it on its first go-round.

Chris Mullins

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