An Excellent Cast in Leipzig’s New Production of Der Freischütz
Weber – Der Freischütz: Soloists, Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus master: Alexander Stessing), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Christian Gedschold (conductor). Leipzig Opera House, 4.3.2017. (MB)
Agathe – Gal James
Ännchen – Magdalena Hinterdobler
Samiel – Verena Hierholzer
Max – Thomas Mohr
Kaspar – Tuomas Pursio
Kuno – Jürgen Kurth
Kilian – Patrick Vogel
Ottokar – Jonathan Michie
Hermit – Rúni Brattaberg
First Hunter – Andreas David
Second Hunter – Klaus Bernewitz
Bridesmaids – Katrin Braunlich, Estelle Haussner, Eliza Rudnicka, Teresa Maria Winkler
Christian von Götz (director)
Dieter Richter (set designs)
Jessica Karge (costumes)
Heidi Zippel (dramaturgy)
Verena Hierholzer (Samiel’s choreography)
‘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.’ With those words, the homesick, indigent Richard Wagner, revolted by what he had experienced as the base superficiality of Parisian musical culture, reported on an 1841 performance of Le Freischütz (Berlioz’s version, with ballet music that was at least Weber’s own). In a piece addressed ‘to the Paris public’, Wagner ostensibly tried to explain the work to that public, yet seemed unable to prevent himself from turning his article into an attack upon – yes, you have guessed correctly – Parisian and, more broadly, French culture.
The Freischütz (most certainly Der) we know and love is the quintessential German Romantic opera, and Wagner’s advocacy has played no little role in that. Upon returning to Saxony, to Dresden, he assumed a leading role in the longstanding if hitherto unsuccessful campaign to have Weber’s bones returned from London and reburied in the city whose German opera (as opposed to its long-flourishing Italian version) he had done much to build. Wagner eulogised his predecessor with music and a flowery address, proclaiming that there had never been a more German musician. Whilst the younger Wagner had stood far more critical, his first opera, Die Feen notwithstanding, of Weber and earlier German opera, now he placed his work in that tradition, as would others theirs. That is far from nonsense, of course, yet it is also far from unproblematical. For one thing, it is impossible, living in the face of what Friedrich Meinecke called in 1948 the ‘German catastrophe’, to assent to such nationalism any more, however differently it may have been intended. For another, much of Weber’s music, still more than Wagner’s, and perhaps still more in this than in Weber’s subsequent two ‘German Romantic’ operas, often questions, even resists, such identification.
Why do I mention all that? Because it was very much in that spirit that, almost whether I wished to or no, I approached this new production of Weber’s opera in Wagner’s home city (itself long ambivalent concerning its greatest son, its concert tradition long, somewhat frustratingly, enjoying a higher profile to the fruits of its still lengthier operatic history). What struck me upon hearing the Overture from the excellent Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Christian Gedschold was, first, how fresh, how vernal (it had been a beautiful, almost spring-day in Leipzig) Weber’s score sounded from every section: the strings an ideal combination of the golden and something darker, the woodwind at times heartbreakingly characterful, almost as if partaking as woodland creatures in Wagner’s fancy, the brass as euphonious as one could hope for, horns tender to a degree. And yet, Gedschold’s direction did not, for me, take its place in the tradition I think of here as ‘German Romantic’: at least not wholeheartedly, or perhaps it was my mindset that had me hear it differently. Where Furtwängler, in his outstanding Salzburg life recording, puts us momentarily at peace, and has it, perhaps, sound more ‘German’ than the music ‘in itself’ always is, where Carlos Kleiber somehow makes his objectively hard-driven Dresden account sound equally at ease with itself, breathing where the tempi might suggest otherwise, this performance sounded more internationalist, perhaps even more at home with the French models Weber – and Wagner – so eagerly adopted in individual numbers. (I mean here a number of the arias and ensemble pieces, although even the Huntsmen’s Chorus, soon to become a staple of German books of allegedly ‘popular song’, actually derives from part of an eighteenth-century French street song, ‘Malbrouk s’en va t’en guerre’.) What sometimes, then, I missed in the seemingly unaffected German Romanticism that would grow into Wagnerian music drama an aural reassessment of the work as the number opera it undoubtedly is.
It was with such thoughts that I also set about watching Christian von Götz’s production, in part, I think, on account of his brilliantly thought-provoking Capriccio, in which Strauss’s work engaged with its own time to an extent, and to a fruitful extent, rarely seen. (Such are the perils, as well as the joys, of reception, whether of a composer, a director, or anyone else!) Perhaps, then, I was too preoccupied with understanding what I saw as part commentary on German history, but this is perhaps one of those works in which such a path is inevitable, and ultimately requires no apology. What struck me from its later nineteenth-century setting was how it enables, perhaps even invites, one to consider the work’s Rezeptionsgeschichte. Indeed, to begin with, I understood it more as a deliberately sanitised version of the period of composition, the hunting lodge too spick and span, even too grand (rather as one might visit such a place touristically today, or indeed in the later nineteenth century). Be that as it may, such sanitisation, displacement, alienation, however one might consider it, served to remember the work such as it never was, even if we have ‘always’ known it as such, something of a ghost, setting the scene for what became still more of a ghost story than one often sees.
It is here, though, a ghost story with a very particular twist, or at least standpoint. Looking at, if not listening to, Weber from a standpoint not so distant from Mahler (recall Die drei Pintos) and his world – the designs hint as much at Franz Joseph and Bad Ischl as at the Bohemian Woods, at least until we briefly enter the latter – we begin to understand the centrality of female experience to the horror tale unfolding. Fear and hysteria reign, Samiel – here, strikingly, a self-choreographed female dancer, Verena Hierholzer – seemingly a projection of some evil deed from the past, haunting the present, just as untruths from our retelling of history continue to haunt us. (Whatever the tribulations of German history, it is the English who do not have a word for Vergangenheitsbewältigung, resulting recently in a catastrophe that could hardly seem more likely over here.) Noting that the opera was originally to be called Die Jägersbraut, the director plays on Agathe’s fear of marriage, a fear born, it seems, of living in so unhappy, so haunted, a place. That women are anything but equals in this society is made perfectly clear by the maids’ dancing for the huntsmen’s delectation in the opening scene. Samiel’s delivery of the funeral crown in the third act terrifies all the women; is it not, however, actually the perfect symbol for patriarchal hegemony and the fantasies it encourages? If the horror-film imagery of Samiel’s other appearances seemed more silly than anything else, perhaps it is all too easy for a man to say that in the face of female agency. (I am questioning myself more as Devil’s Advocate here than because I really think so, but the openness of the staging to such self-criticism is perhaps not the least of its strengths.)
Such would in itself count for much less, had it not been for an excellent cast, whose performances would have graced any stage. If Thomas Mohr, I am afraid to say, looked and acted too much on the old side for Max – however one might have framed the performance – his vocal delivery more than compensated. A tenor bright and clear, yet sensitive too, he complemented very well the sopranos of Gal James and Magdalena Hinterdobler, exhibiting many of the same qualities, and with fine coloratura to boot, Hinterdobler’s especially expressive as well as merely impressive. Tuomas Pursio’s darkly dangerous Kaspar stood very much in the line of other fine performances I have heard him give (from Wagner to Nono), yet there was nothing generic about the malady of his pride and delusion. Jürgen Kurth and Jonathan Michie offered intelligent, verbally acute performances as Kuno and Ottokar, whilst Patrick Vogel’s lighter, nimbler tenor (by comparison with Max) offered ample indication of why he might have won the title of king of the marksmen. Rúni Brattaberg’s dark, sonorous Hermit did what he should, although why anyone should necessarily take heed of the character’s words remains something of a dramaturgical mystery. Choral singing throughout spoke of music well known, ‘in the blood’, if you will, yet never taken for granted: it was as fresh as it was ‘traditional’.
There was then, plenty, of opportunity to rethink, to reassess, wherever that impulse may have originated. And yet, for everything I have said, and for all the outstanding quality of orchestral instruments’ ‘French’ solo moments (of which there are many), it remained the dark, undeniably Wagnerian tones of the Wolf’s Glen that made the deepest impression of all. Here, Saxon tradition spoke of an orchestra, one of the greatest in the world, that knew where this music led, and which was happy to guide us. Göltz made a better job of staging frankly impossible scenic directions than many (‘Gothic’ horror notwithstanding), but Weber’s extraordinary presentiments of Siegfried remained an aural experience above all. Wagner’s truths may not always be empirical; that does not necessarily render them untruths.