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13 Sep 2011

BBC Prom 73: Der Freischütz

Why would a French composer take an opera which epitomises German Romanticism and Nationalism and adapt it to the conventions of the French grand opera tradition?

Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz (French version, 1841, with

Max: Andrew Kennedy; Kilian: Samuel Evans; Kouno: Matthew Brook; Gaspard: Gidon Saks; Annette: Virginie Pochon; Agathe: Sophie Karthäuser; Samiel: Christian Pelissier; Ottakar: Robert Davies; Hermit: Luc Bertin-Hugault. Monteverdi Choir. Orchestra Révolutionnaire and Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.BBC Proms 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 9th September 2011.


It seems that Hector Berlioz was compelled in this endeavour by a memory of a 1824 performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when the Frenchman was just 21 years old, which he bewailed was “hacked and mutilated in the most wanton fashion by an arranger”. However, despite severe misgivings about the production and vocal performances, Berlioz was enchanted by the work itself, and did not miss a single performance in the run.

When the Opéra decided to revive the opera, under the title Le Freyschütz, 17 years later, Berlioz perhaps feared that if he did not himself take on the task of modifying the work to satisfy the requirements of the Opéra’s statutes — no speech on stage, but there must be dancing — the outcome would be another garbled monstrosity. So, he set about replacing the spoken dialogue with sung recitatives and also inventing a musical vehicle for the obligatory ballet, on the condition that the opera was performed without a word or note being cut or altered.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner performed Berlioz’s French-language version earlier this year, at the Opéra Comique in Paris; upon transferring the production to the Royal Albert Hall for the penultimate Prom of the 2011 season, sets were dispensed with but a few props, costumes and some neat stage business — even a few rifle shots — lifted what was described in the programme as a ‘concert performance’ to a genuinely dramatic format. Indeed, while movements and gestures were deft and economically, it was hard to see what would have been gained by a more extravagant staging: essentially, the drama lies within Weber’s score, the vocal lines revealing credible and engaging relationships between the protagonists, and the orchestral fabric fully evoking the dark, elemental forests where the melodrama unfolds.

Substituting sung recitative need not necessarily alter the ambience or dramatic tempo; but, in this instance I felt that the recitative ‘diluted’ the melodrama and weakened the naturalism for which Weber strived. And, to my ear the gentle lyricism of the French text could not match the grim Gothic resonances of the original German. Moreover, the cast were not all equal to the demands of the French text; not surprisingly the two Francophones, bass Luc Bertin-Hugault and soprano Virginie Pochon, fared best.

Indeed Virginie Pochon’s Annette was a show-stealing performance. Her striking Act 2 aria revealed her rich bright tone, while in a stunning ‘Chanson’ in Act 3 she combined disciplined accuracy with energetic and spontaneous freshness.

Act 1 is dominated by male voices. Andrew Kennedy was a naïve, charming Max, his light high tenor sweet and appealing, although some of the role’s low-lying phrases did not carry over the orchestral texture. In this large arena, he was also a little lacking in stage presence; this Max was certainly no match for Gidon Saks's dastardly Gaspard whose committed embodiment of spitefulness managed to stay just the right side of cartoon villain, and who also had the vocal heft to fling his venom to the far reaches of the Hall. Before the seemingly impervious bust of Sir Henry Wood, Gaspard’s devilry unfolded, as he delved to the depths of a vast cauldron cloaked in swirls of dry ice to summon up his magic bullets.

Sophie Karthäuser as Agathe has a radiant tone and accurate intonation but she was rather underpowered, struggling to project above the incisive orchestral playing; in fairness, Agathe is a two-dimensional character, and while Karthäuser certainly captured her innocence, she did not uncover the anxious foreboding in the music which might convey her ‘darker’ qualities.

The smaller parts were competently delivered, although once again the young singers occasionally seemed a little reticent, vocally and dramatically. Matthew Brook’s Kouno successfully conveyed his gentleness and tender feelings for Max, and Robert Davies was an assertive Ottokar. Samuel Evans was a competent Kilian, while Luc Bertin-Hugault might have strived for more gravity and stature as the Hermit. However, I found Christian Pelissier’s Mephistophelian Samiel somewhat exaggerated and lacking in sophistication — disengaged from his victims and uninterested in their fate.

The superb Monteverdi Choir were utterly convincing and engaging, entrancing and exiting fluently, moving naturally on the raked staging, one even descending to the fore-stage to dance a peasant waltz with Kilian. In the ‘folk’ numbers, there was some wonderfully warm singing from the men — their hunting calls perfectly mimicking the ringing tones of a hunter’s horn — and some fine performances from the solo bridesmaids in Act 3. Overall the precision of the ensemble reminded one of Weber’s nationalistic ideals: he elevated the purity of the folk as representative of the ‘soul’ of the people, the ‘people’ being an organism in its own right, capable of democratically determining its own destiny.

In many ways, the most impressive aspect of the performance was the marvellous playing of the Orchestra Révolutionnaire and Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner who whisked the players along with dramatic urgency and fleetness. The overture was richly melodiousness, the four horns lustrous. Elsewhere string tremolos shimmered, and there were countless woodwind solos of exquisite clarity; the tone and articulation of the period instruments evoked the beauty and strength of the natural world, highlighting Weber’s rich symphonic tone painting. The climactic ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene was spine-chillingly suggestive, striking horn playing, trembling low woodwind and ominous booming timpani strokes revealing the harmonic power and radicalism of Weber’s score.

Having struggled without success to convince the Opéra to overlook their demand for a balletic diversion, the best that Berlioz could do was to orchestrate Weber’s own piano piece, Invitation to the Dance. Although the intervention of this instrumental divertissement strikes a somewhat disruptive note in the drama, it did give the instrumentalists another opportunity to shine.

Although the pace lagged a little towards the close — not aided by the balletic intervention — and the happy ending is rather contrived, this performance forcefully demonstrated that Weber’s opera, in both Germanic and Gallic ‘variants’, is a work of both enormous musical charm and radical creative invention.

Claire Seymour

Click here for access to audio recordings of this performance.

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