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Carl Maria von Weber
26 Apr 2012

Der Freischütz, London

The unfashionableness of Der Freischütz in England is a little baffling. In its day, not only was the opera celebrated across Germany, it soon conquered other European stages and indeed theatres worldwide.

Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz, J.277 (concert performance)

Ottokar, Zamiel: Stephan Loges; Kuno: Martin Snell; Agathe: Christine Brewer; Ännchen: Sally Matthews; Kaspar: Lars Woldt; Max: Simon O’Neil; Hermit: Gidon Saks; Killian: Marcus Farnsworth; Four Bridesmaids: Lucy Hall; Narrator: Malcom Sinclair; London Symphony Chorus ; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, Saturday 21 April 2012.

Above: Carl Maria von Weber


Premiered at the Berlin Schauspielhaus in 1821, by the end of the decade it had already received productions in Danish, Swedish, Czech, Russian, English, French, Hungarian, Polish and Dutch, and by 1850, stagings had been mounted as far afield as Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney. Of course, it is in many ways the quintessential German Romantic opera, though one should always remember how much influence other ‘national’ traditions wield over it, but it is saddening that we, or at least the powers that be, should apparently evince so little interest in this tradition. Oberon was programmed to appear this season at Covent Garden, a mouthwatering prospect, only to be cancelled in favour of yet another run — within the same season! — for La traviata. The only staging of Der Freischütz I have seen in London, or indeed elsewhere, was that by ENO in 1999. Meanwhile, Calixto Bieito has just presented a new production in Berlin for the Komische Oper, a must-see staging by all accounts. Perhaps ENO, with its reinvigorated interest in co-productions will bring it across the Channel at some point; we can but hope. Many thanks, in any case, are due to the LSO for this concert performance.

It is not, of course, a work without its problems, first and foremost of which is surely Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto (even if that seems a masterpiece when compared with the ludicrous effort from James Robinson Planché for Oberon). The dialogue, especially in a concert performance, can present difficulties for a non-German cast, so it is understandable that a decision was made to ditch it in favour of an English narration by Amanda Holden. Whether the latter in any sense marked an improvement remained unclear, to say the least. Malcolm Sinclair’s delivery, whilst clear, was definitely on the ac-tor-ly side, the narration itself prosaic and yet lodged precariously between sanitised fairy-tale — fairy-tales should be anything but sanitised! — and camp. Of the work’s darkness there was little or nothing to be heard. In 1841, sickened and impoverished by the superficiality of Parisian musical culture, the homesick Wagner wrote of a performance: ‘It seems to be the poem of those Bohemian woods themselves, whose dark and solemn aspect permits us at once to grasp how the isolated man would believe himself, if not prey to a dæmonic power of Nature, then at least in eternal submission thereto.’ For a sense of that crucial quality, one had to turn to the music — and indeed, perhaps one always did.

Sir Colin Davis has a lengthy history with the work; he recorded it with the Staatskapelle Dresden — Weber’s own orchestra, of course, and Wagner’s too — twenty years ago, and these two performances have been recorded for release on LSO Live. This was not a reading of incendiary drama such as one hears on Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording, also with the Dresden orchestra, but won over as one can hardly fail to be by that performance, it is easy to forget how unorthodox it is. Take, for instance, the waltz in the first act, preceding Max’s recitative and aria. Kleiber’s tempo is, on the face of it, bizarrely fast, though somehow it works. Furtwängler takes it far more slowly, as did Davis, though his reading sounded closer to the sound and at times implacability one might have expected from a Klemperer Freischütz. (Now there is a thought; he certainly conducted it in his youth; indeed he made his debut at the Prague Deutsches Landestheater with it, in 1907.) These were sturdier peasants; I can imagine some finding the results staid by comparison, but there was actually a subtler vigour at work.

The Overture was another case in point, its opening gravely Beethovenian. Despite the difference in tempo and almost everything else, I was somehow put in mind of Coriolan. An unfortunate split horn note was heard upon the horns entry, but thereafter, throughout the work, the LSO’s horns were on excellent form, just as required in this of all operas. There was a sense of fairy-tale: I thought of Davis’s Hänsel und Gretel for the Royal Opera. But there was also, and increasingly so, Wagnerian gravity to be heard, reminding us that, so many times in this work, Siegfried is but a stone’s throw away. Fafner’s lair takes form in the Wolf’s Glen Scene. And there was no shortage of dramatic drive to the conclusion of the Overture, but Davis and his wonderful orchestra saw no reason to resort to anything hinting at superficial display. Orchestral malevolence was to be heard in spades at the opening of Kaspar’s aria, ‘Schweig! damit dich niemand warnt,’ and a proper storm was cooked up in that celebrated finale to the second act. (Electronic sound effects proved slightly alienating, but what does one do in a concert performance?) If not exactly folksy — and does one really want that? — there was certainly a nice orchestral jauntiness to Ännchen’s ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’. Whilst a list of notable orchestral solos would doubtless extend to almost every section principal, I feel I cannot fail to mention the superlative contributions of leader, Carmine Lauri, Rebecca Gilliver (cello), Gareth Davies (flute), and of course, the viola obbligato in ‘Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base’ (it looked like Paul Silverthorne to me, although the programme said otherwise, so I should probably credit Edward Vanderspare too, just in case).

The London Symphony Chorus was on predictably fine form too. Its choral weight and attack registering unfailingly from the opening Huntsman’s Chorus onwards. Both the chorus and Davis were keenly aware of the echoes of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten — they recorded it relatively recently — a little later on during the first act. Would that one could hear more choral singing of such distinction in the opera house! Simon O’Neill performed a decent, professional task. He can sing the notes — and did. He can sing the words too, but there remains, as I have generally found with this artist, a lurking suspicion that he is not always entirely clear what the words mean. Moreover, the pinched quality of his voice is, despite its heft, becoming increasingly pronounced. It is perhaps easier to take here than in a work on the scale of Die Meistersinger, but one could hardly call it ingratiating. Christine Brewer again certainly has the required vocal heft for the work. Her wobble became unduly pronounced in her second act aria, but sincerity of spirit won through here, and in a lovely third-act cavatina. To start with, I found Sally Matthews’s timbre a little pallid, but was soon won over. There was certainly much to esteem in her clarity of line (not least vis-à-vis certain of her colleagues), and she handled the coloratura not only with ease but with a sure understanding of its dramatic purpose. A distinguished performance indeed! Lars Woldt was a late replacement for Falk Struckmann as Kaspar. He shone in the role, not least on account of his natural ease with his native tongue. I can imagine some might have found his vibrato a little heavy — I did not — but there was, vibrato aside, something impressively resounding to his tonal quality and delivery. The appearance of Stephan Loges as Ottokar — it is pretty much impossible to judge his electronic appearance as Zamiel — made one wish, from its elegance of delivery, that the character had more to sing. Gidon Saks wobbled a bit as the Hermit, but I am not sure that matters too much with respect to that particular role. I should also definitely mention a winning, stylish Killian from Marcus Farnsworth; again, it was difficult not to wish that the role might be expanded. Martin Snell and Lucy Hall rounded off with aplomb a cast of many virtues.

If it is difficult, then, quite to see those Bohemian Woods in the concrete jungle of the Barbican Centre, and the nature of the concert performance made for a less Romantic rendering than one would hope for in the theatre, this performance exhibited many singular qualities. It will certainly be worth hearing on CD.

Mark Berry

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