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Performances

Scene from <em>Der Freischütz</em> [Photo by Katrin Ribbe]
12 Sep 2016

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

Rarely have I experienced such fabulous singing in such a dreadful production. With magnificent voices, Andreas Schager and Dorothea Röschmann rescued Michael Thalheimer’s grotesque staging of von Weber’s Der Freischütz. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Alexander Soddy led a richly detailed, transparent and brilliantly glowing Berliner Staatskapelle.

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Scene from Der Freischütz

Photos by Katrin Ribbe

 

As the voices had the best kind of chemistry, the extremes of musical excellence and ugly setting made for an ambivalent experience. Thalheimer’s staging will be difficult to forget, because the great resonance of the energetic music, passionate vocals, and Martin Wright’s choir made it highly memorable.

While Weber’s Der Freischütz is not often performed, the ‘first German Romantic opera’ has increasingly more new productions popping up across Germany. Based on a folk legend Friedrich Kind wrote the libretto: about Max the forester, his love for the head forester’s daughter, Casper his nemesis’s envy, and the forest demon, Samiel, up to no good. Magic bullets, female forebodings, spirits of the dead, dark magic, and the forest setting contribute to the work’s rich Romanticism. The Overture and the Wolf’s Glen Scene music are often performed in symphony halls. Weber weaved German folk tunes in the dark Romantic score.

Olaf Altmann’s grey stage, made up of a hole in the back of the stage as entrance of a metallic cavern through which the people crawl on stage. Olaf Freese’s lighting helped brighten the grim tone with his atmospheric, sometimes colourful effects. Thalheimer has been directing more and more opera (I was also disappointed by take on Verdi’s Otello in Antwerp). He leans too heavily on his concept and forgets humanistic aspects: an intellectually provocative concept still needs an emotional dynamic.

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The highly theatrical gestures during the drama undermined any refined emotion. The over-acting singers made caricaturesque facial expressions, that led to a void of emotional authenticity between the singers, although through their voices they regained their sense of humanity.

The most baffling concoction was Thalheimer’s Samiel, performed effectively revolting by Peter Moltzen with unnerving spoken dialogue. But towards the end it was impossible to find meaning in the demon’s monstrous gestures. In unsettlingly choreographed scenes, he becomes a puppet master that controls several characters with unseen strings.

Andreas Schager brought thrilling vocal highpoints to the spectacle. With “O, die Sonne” Schager immediately commanded the stage with his charismatic vocals overshadowing the others. “Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen” he belted with great anguish, singing about the challenges of his life. His nuanced voice rich with lyricism contributed greatly to Max’s emotional authenticity, even while looking awkward expressing Thalheimer’s over-the-top theatrical gestures.

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Not to be outdone, Dorothea Röschmann equally dazzled with authentic virtue as Agathe. She is modest letting her voice convince. Her purity moved me to tears with her “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle”, as she prays to heaven to protect her after her foreboding dream where she is shot by Max.

In supporting cast, Evelin Novak sang decently under Thalheimer’s peculiar directions.

Tobias Schabel as Casper stimulated an eerie atmosphere in his “Schweig', schweig'! damit dich Niemand warnt”, where makes his faustian pact to deliver Max to Samiel.

With Soddy the strings produced brooding resonance. The orchestra delivered a ceaseless luxurious sound. With Martin Wright’s preparation, the choir sang with crystal clear diction and impressively dynamic volume. The choir’s intensity led to thrilling shivers and goosebumps. Its highlight the Huntsman’s Chorus in Act III, where Thalheimer has the members hold beer mugs in typical old-fashioned German gear.

One of Thalheimer’s effective changes came from cutting out nearly fifteen minutes of spoken dialogue. Although the story became a bit more difficult to tackle, these cuts resulted in two uninterrupted hours of fast-paced musical momentum from Soddy and the Berliner Staatskapelle, which made the experience still very much worthwhile.

David Pinedo

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