I watched an online broadcast of *Der Freischütz* on February 22, 2021 (it had been live on February 13th). Here's a trailer for the production:
The production was from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where I had seen *Lohengrin* in November of 2019. That was a profoundly satisfying experience and this looked like it would check two of the same boxes…
First, it’s Teutonic music by one of the great German opera composers of the 19th century. Carl Maria von Weber didn’t have the genius or the long-armed reach of Richard Wagner, but Wagner would never have been Wagner without the example of Weber. Weber tied the harmony in with the drama in a way that hadn’t been done in such a bone-chilling way before. Wagner made this his bread and butter, and I will be feasting on that Wagnerian bread and butter until the day I die.
Second, it looked to be a fabulous example of what the Germans call “Regietheater,” which can be translated as “director’s theatre.” It could more snidely be described as “Eurotrash.” I see Regietheater as being born at the temple of Wagner, at the Bayreuth Festival. Bayreuth had been taken over by Hitler and his gang during WWII and it was reopened in the early 1950s, with spare, luminous, revelatory productions directed by Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner. This was not to everyone’s taste, but it was a great way to make a fresh start and get that Nazi stench out of the theater.
Eventually Regietheater became indulgent and tiresome. A production of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in the 1990s had the Rhinemaidens wearing high-top sneakers and cavorting around a jungle gym. I’m reminded of a quote by the 19thcentury French poet Paul Verlaine: “Everything changes but the avant garde.”
The director of this *Freischütz* production was Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian director who’s worked quite a lot at the Bavarian State Opera, also at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, at the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera, various other spots around Europe. Not in New York, yet, to my knowledge. I did a little online exploring it looks like he’s into pointing out the artifice of the theatre: showing the lighting instruments, giving a heightened sense of the phoniness of the enterprise. This can be very effective or it can be tiresome.
The Munich production was conducted by a conductor I’d never heard of, Antonello Manacorda. I’d heard of the two women in the leads, Golda Schultz and Anna Prohaska. The only singer I’d actually heard was Kyle Ketelsen, an extraordinary young American bass I heard in *Pelléas et Mélisande* at the Met a couple years ago.
*Der Freischütz* premiered in Berlin in 1821. The title could be translated as “The Marksman” or “The Sharpshooter.” The opera opened with the orchestra playing the warm, sonorous, French-horn laden overture. A video was projected onto the stage, a conversation between the leading lady, Agathe, and her father. They were both facing forward and not actually speaking, we read their dialogue in subtitles. Agathe’s father was upset that Agathe was getting married and he knew nothing about it.
The curtain went up on a mid-century modern reception hall with people milling around. Gorgeous wood paneling and a fabulous chandelier on one side. The people left the stage and we had more video projected onto the top section of the proscenium, a series of five getting-to-know-you videos, introducing us to the five primary characters. This might have rubbed me the wrong way because 1) it’s during the overture, and do we need to be distracted from the music?, and 2) are we at the opera or at the movies? But it was smoothly handled, it was a useful way to get to know the characters and the situation before the opera started, and (just between you and me), the overture is 15 minutes long and not persistently involving.
The curtain went down for the last few minutes of the overture. The chorus had come back onstage and they were drinking beer and cocktails. Max, the tenor and fiancé of the leading lady (Agathe), was being encouraged by his boss, Agathe’s father, to shoot someone in the street. A rifle was set up in the room, aimed out into the street below. The video at the top of the stage showed the view through the rifle. Max refused to shoot and another guy at the party shot someone instead, and we saw video of that person being shot in the head and falling to the sidewalk. I won’t go through the whole show moment by moment like this, but thought it would be useful to show how Tcherniakov set the tone.
Agathe’s father tells Max that in order to “win her hand” he needs to demonstrate his sharp-shooting ability. Max was sung by Pavel Černoch, whose voice was firm and fearless, what you want in this rep. Max’s rival, Kaspar, was played by Kyle Ketelsen, who, as expected, sounded fantastic and cut a fine figure in his pale grey suit. Agathe’s father was played by bass Bálint Szabó, whose voice was nice and buzzy but I was bothered that he was smoking a big cigar throughout the first scene. He seemed to be quite comfortable - - yes, there are singers who are smokers in real life - - but I can’t imagine it was nice for the other singers onstage to be inhaling all that nasty cigar smoke.
A couple of interesting COVID-related notes. A few shots of the overture showed the conductor and the opera house behind him, which was empty! And in Max’s aria after the first reception scene, five non-singing actors came onstage to clear off the empty beer bottles and cocktail glasses. They were dressed as cater waiters, wearing black tie, white jackets, and masks!
Max and Kaspar had a scene together, followed by an aria for Kaspar, and let me tell ya, when Ketelsen sang, you knew you were at the opera. Luscious, vibrant, powerful singing, even throughout his range, effortless, thrilling.
The next scene was for the two ladies, Golda Schultz as the central heroine, Agathe, and Anna Prohaska as her best friend, Ännchen. The scene started with a charming duet and then went straight to a pair of arias. Ännchen’s pert aria, “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen,” is my favorite aria in this opera. It’s just adorable, and Prohaska sang it perfectly, with charm and plenty of sparkle. Here's Chen Reiss singing it in another Regietheater production, this one from Vienna:
This aria is followed by probably the most famous aria from the opera, Agathe’s gorgeous scena, “Leise, leise,” a real showpiece for a soprano. I wasn’t so happy with Schultz. She has a beautiful, smooth voice, but her style wasn’t quite right. Her little doohickeys approaching a note didn’t quite land where they should. This music needs some indulgence but it needs to be the right kind of indulgence placed at the right moments. She had better luck at the end of the aria where the music demands just plain vocalism without any extras.
The next scene had a duet for the two women plus Max, a sweet number that featured Prohaska in full saucy soubrette mode, commenting on the foolish romance of the central couple. And then we arrived at the scene that makes the opera a go-to chapter in a History of Western Music course, the Wolf’s Glen Scene, which has all the spooky effects that impressed Wagner. The scene starts with Kaspar basically summoning Satan, with Kaspar singing and Satan speaking. Tcherniakov made the brilliant decision to have Satan speaking through Kaspar, basically inhabiting his body. I think he might have done this because he had a brilliant singing actor in Ketelsen, who could really deliver. Or maybe he cast Ketelsen, knowing he’d really deliver. This was the most impressive moment of a very impressive performance.
I had hoped that Schultz would make me happier with her more lyrical second aria, “Und ob die Wolke,” but alas, she was doing the same things that annoyed me in her previous aria. I’m not giving up on Schultz, I think maybe this isn’t the right role for her, or maybe she’s just a little young (she’s 37).
The final scene was Agathe and Max’s wedding and of course Agathe’s father was smoking his head off again. He tells Max to fire his final shot before Agathe arrives - - he fires the shot just as Agathe arrives, and of course she falls to the ground and everyone thinks he’s shot HER by mistake. But no, she had just fainted. Somehow his bullet has reached Kaspar, the evil dude. By mistake? Hm, maybe not so much. Max confesses that he had used magic bullets, he’s forgiven, everyone ends up happy. Except for the dead evil dude.