LSO’s Concert Performance of Der Freischütz Lacks Drama

22/04/2012

 Weber, Der Freischütz: Soloists, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.4.2012. (JPr)

Der Freischütz surfaces only from time to time in Britain and it is difficult to know why this is – it was performed by Sadler’s Wells Opera in its heyday and is long overdue a staging by English National Opera. Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 melodrama is considered a prototypical nationalistic opera and a landmark of the German Romanticism that reached in zenith in the works of Richard Wagner: indeed the whole opera seems a precursor to his Der fliegende Holländer. This London Symphony Orchestra concert performance (the second of two) marks my thirtieth anniversary with this wonderful work, as I remember – with increasing fondness as years pass – when it was put on at Covent Garden in 1982 with Alberto Remedios as Max and Donald McIntyre as Kaspar with – as here – Colin Davis conducting. Since then in this country there has been the odd opera house revival, a few concert performances but nothing more I can recall. Der Freischütz is still regularly performed across the Channel and especially in Germany, of course.

Weber’s opera brings us magical settings and the eternal battle between good and evil that is open to ideological misinterpretation. It concerns a marksman who makes a pact with the devil to win a shooting contest and we are not far removed from similar parables such as Faust or even the Ring. It is based on a fifteenth-century legend about Bohemian foresters and their contract with the devil for magic bullets (or arrows) which will always find their target but which also bring the risk that the devil will direct one of them at the shooter himself. In Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto, all the shots by the young huntsman, Max, seem to miss. A rival hunter, Kaspar – the blackest of black-hearted operatic villains – has earlier made that pact with the devil, Zamiel. He hopes to exchange Max for himself as Max’s last shot will kill Agathe, the hunter-hero’s bride-to-be. If you think it all sounds a bit Grimm then you are quite right because the plot of Der Freischütz springs from the same kind of folklore with just a little more horror and suspense added. Weber engineers a typical happy ending when a holy hermit arranges that Agathe is kept safe by a bridal crown of white roses, Max’s bullet kills Kaspar and the devil claims him.

A wonderful introduction to the opera in the programme by David Cairns concluded by stating ‘Never before had music pictured nature and the natural world and human beings’ immersion in it with such freshness and mastery. Two centuries later, it rings as bright and true as ever.’ I love this opera too and if the story were not enough, it has all the musical ingredients to keep it popular: an endlessly melodious score whose tunes are very familiar and include the famous overture, Agathe’s aria ‘Leise, leise’ (Softly, softly), and the wonderfully atmospheric Wolf’s Glen scene. Other works that are revived endlessly offer much less.

On the downside, there is the dialogue that moves the tale along but punctuates the work to make it a ‘number opera’ that is very typical of its time – but then dialogue has never prevented Carmen from being, quite probably, the world’s most popular opera. Here an attempt was made to resolve this issue by having the opera sung in its original German with Amanda Holden’s English narration read out by Malcolm Sinclair. For those who did not know the opera I suspect this was very helpful but – for me – there was too much of the ‘Young Person’s Guide to Der Freischütz’ in his interruptions.

Weber’s opera in its French version by Berlioz was most recently heard at the 2011 Proms given by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with their customary nod towards period practice. There was nothing of that here and I doubt whether any more orchestral players could have been fitted in between the massed ranks of the London Symphony Chorus and the principal singers restricted to a thin area perilously close to the front edge of the platform. Colin Davis’s account – perhaps reflecting his 84 years and degree of frailty – was stately and imbued with gorgeous, mellow bucolic sounds and some suitably eerie and demonic moments where necessary. It was all rather too cosy and a wonderful revisiting of ‘an old friend’. With the singers arrayed with their scores for a recording of the concert at the front of the stage and, for instance, the impeccable chorus singing with risible flimsy cardboard megaphones during the Wolf’s Glen scene, there was definitely something lacking. What was that? Well, it was that the whole thing was almost totally lacking in DRAMA.

Only Simon O’Neill’s Max attempted to interact with the other singers from time to time and Lars Woldt (a last minute substitute for the previous advertised Kaspar) stayed in character when not singing and looked suitably grim but others such as Christine Brewer, who sang Agathe, and Martin Snell, as Kuno, looked miserable and sat so very still they might have been waxworks from Madame Tussauds. At least Gidon Saks in his all too brief moments as the hermit near the end – why didn’t he step in as Kaspar – engaged the audience in the drama of the moment through his commanding physical and vocal presence. Otherwise through the narrator’s punctuating remarks and Colin Davis’s unhurried approach, most of the opera’s highlights were just that, individual moments instead of part of a coherent performance.

Nevertheless, musically there was much to savour including the splendid playing by the consistently reliable LSO and the support given to them by the lively and committed chorus. Firstly Simon O’Neill was a superb Max and every bit the equal of René Kollo whom I also have heard sing this part even though he lacks the innate lyricism that was a remarkable part of Alberto Remedios’s voice. O’Neill’s voice was expressive and he sang remarkably effortlessly for such a demanding role. He is popular at Covent Garden so the Royal Opera’s next Parsifal could be their next Max if they wanted to put Der Freischütz on again soon. The best of the rest was certainly Gidon Saks, as previously mentioned, and Lars Woldt as Kaspar who subtly underplayed the devilry when it is too easy to go over-the-top (as Saks might have done). It is no insult to say that the way he looks he will always be the paterfamilias or the villain and never the hero, but his is a name to look out for even if his voice didn’t always have the power to cut through the orchestra at its most rampant.

The remaining cast had its strengths and weaknesses; Marcus Farnsworth was an engaging Killian, Martin Snell was a very uninspiring Kuno, and Stephan Loges sang a suitably spectral off-stage Zamiel but sounded uncomfortable on it as Ottokar. Lucy Hall sang all the bridesmaids lines and was listed as the Four Bridesmaids. She had such a radiant and sweet voice than I wondered whether she could have sung Ännchen, allowing Sally Matthews to sing Agathe. Ideally Ännchen requires a lighter voice than Ms Matthews has, wonderful as she can be she was altogether too serious and not playful enough during her famous Act III aria about the ghostly dog. Finally it brings me to Christine Brewer as Agathe who sang at times better than I have recently heard her. I repeat an oft-expressed concern that with her head down in her score she loses the opportunity to communicate properly what she is singing and at this stage of her career her voice lacks a certain flexibility that meant the tricky end of ‘Leise, leise’ – that prior to that was sung well and seemed suitably impassioned – totally defeated her.

Jim Pritchard

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