Prom 73: Berlioz’ version of Der Freischütz doesn’t quite hit the bullseye

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 73: Weber, Der Freischütz: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.9.11. (JPr)

Wolf’s Glen Scene from Act II (c) Chris Christodoulou

I first saw Der Freischütz about 30 years ago and it probably will survive this Prom and still remain a favourite of mine. Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 melodrama is the prototypical nationalistic opera and a landmark of the German Romanticism that gave rise to Rossini’s 1829 William Tell (such a success earlier this Proms season) and the works of Richard Wagner. In 1982 at Covent Garden the wonderful Alberto Remedios and Donald McIntyre were Max and Caspar: since then – despite a subsequent revival – there have only been the occasional concert performances but nothing more significant than that as far as I can recall. Der Freischütz remains much more frequently performed across the Channel and particularly in Germany of course. – and France too it seems, as this Prom given by the Monteverdi Choir and the period-sounding Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique originated with their performances (with many of the same soloists) at the Opéra Comique in Paris earlier this year as part of their on-going five-year collaboration there.

As Stephen Johnson’s informative programme note suggests the influence of Weber’s opera was far-reaching and ‘showed how the spirit of nature itself could be evoked through music: witness the overture’s echoing horn calls and mysterious string tremolos, like rustling foliage; the forest has long been a potent national symbol for Germans. Wagner’s ‘forest murmurs’ in Siegfried, the woodland imagery in Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Fourth Symphony, even Mahler’s incomparably rich nature imagery – all have their roots deep in Der Freischütz.’

It offers magical settings and the eternal battle between good and evil. The story involves a marksman who makes a pact with the devil to win a shooting contest and, is not therefore very far removed from other 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 shooters themselves. In Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto, all the shots by the young huntsman, Max, seem to miss. A rival hunter, Caspar – the prototype for operatic villains of a malignant disposition – has earlier made that pact with the devil to trade his soul for the magic bullets. He hopes to exchange Max for himself since Max’s last shot will kill Agathe, the hunter-hero’s bride-to-be.

There is also a need for a happy ending however, so a holy hermit arranges that Agathe is kept safe by a bridal crown of white roses, Max’s bullet kills Caspar and the devil claims him. If you think it all sounds a bit Grimm then you are quite right because the Der Freischütz plot springs from the same kind of folklore with just a little more horror and suspense added: Weber’s fine music  and imaginative orchestral writing supplies many tunes inspired by German folk music. There is an endlessly melodious score whose tunes are very familiar and include the famous overture, Agathe’s poignant Act II aria, and the wonderfully atmospheric Wolf’s Glen scene.

The downside of all this is that the original has much dialogue that moves the tale along but punctuates the work to make it a ‘number opera’ that is very typical of its time. Berlioz was another to be influenced by Weber’s opera and was given the responsibility by the Paris Opéra to provide a version that would be acceptable to audiences in the era of grand opera; they demanded that sung recitatives replaced the spoken dialogue and there must be the opportunity for a ballet. For the latter he orchestrated Weber’s piano piece Invitation to the Dance (more recognisable to me for Michel Fokine’s incandescent 1911 ballet Le Spectre de la Rose). Berlioz’s recitatives seem examples of fine declamatory writing and would do relatively little damage to Weber’s original work were it not for the one insurmountable problem that undermines his concept: it is all translated into French (proper title Le Freyschütz). The Wolf’s Glen just doesn’t seem as threatening as ‘Gorge du Loup’! This demands it to be sung in a lighter – Rossinian – French style and it just does not work for me.

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under a calm Sir John Eliot Gardiner seemed on good form; their period instruments never threatening to overwhelm the more delicately orchestrated numbers. The valveless trumpets and horns often made an evocative sound but when played in an exposed fashion you can hear the effort needed to play them. The ensemble played with primitive charm and no little visceral excitement when required from the sinister low woodwind and doom-laden drumstrokes. The very-committed Monteverdi Choir were convincing peasants, huntsmen and bridesmaids as appropriate. This was my kind of concert opera performance – an informal dress code and some costumes, no music stands or scores and an imaginative use of the performance space … there was even some rifle shooting!

It was all very stylish as far as it went, but the singing mostly was too limpid for me – though properly in keeping with the idiom Berlioz’s French version demanded. Men’s voices predominate during the rustic events which form Act I. A sweet-toned Andrew Kennedy was the hero Max who appeared to be rather naïve and unaware of what he was getting himself into. Gidon Saks was his nemesis Gaspard (Caspar) – he would have chewed the scenery had there been any scenery to chew. In front of the bust of Sir Henry Wood the devilish goings-on of the Wolf’s Glen took place and as he conjured his bullets from a large copper cauldron and puffs of dry ice it had to be seen to be believed. Saks seemed to inhabit another opera world entirely from what was going on around him, and sounding more like John Tomlinson then that great singer now does, he brought some much needed real dramatics to the proceedings. Detracting from this was some over the top – and beyond – sulphurous cackling from Christian Pelissier as the devil incarnate, Samiel. Generally the casting gave opportunities to younger singers to gain experience and Samuel Evans’s Kilian, Matthew Brook’s Kouno (Cuno) and Robert Davies’s Ottokar – while perfectly acceptable – lacked a certain authority.

Women’s voices open Act II with the domestic evening scene, and again are significant in Act III where Weber’s genius gives us a trio of bright numbers: a Cavatina for Agathe (a radiant Sophie Karthäuser), a song for her cousin Annette (Ännchen), stylishly sung by a bright-toned Virginie Pochon, and a chorus – one of several imitation folksongs – with fine contributions from four enchanting solo bridesmaids.

The opera’s denouement took its time; after another huntsmen’s chorus came Invitation to a Dance, then words of wisdom from a Hermit (again a gravitas-lite Luc Bertin-Hugault) – throughout the music seemed more drawn-out than usual. As the thematic material of the overture – which also concludes Agathe’s delightful first aria – returned, it brought the work to a rather insipid conclusion.

I wish it had been in German and I would probably have enjoyed it so much more. Perhaps that was the view of others because it was a shame that this penultimate evening of the Proms season should see so many empty seats (and standing places) in the Royal Albert Hall and several took their opportunity to leave every time there was a break in the music. Truth-be-told, had I not been reviewing this concert I might have left early too. Despite a refined performance it was not Der Freischütz as I ever want to hear it again, though I appreciate it will have its admirers.

Jim Pritchard