A Mixed Verdict on Dresden’s New Production of Weber’s Classic Opera

GermanyGermany Weber: Der Freischütz, Staatskapelle Dresden & Staatsopernchor Dresden, Christian Thielemann (conductor), Semperoper, Dresden, 6.5.2015 (JMI)

Credit: Semperoper, Dresden
Credit: Semperoper, Dresden

Max: Michael König
Agathe: Sara Jakubiak
Kaspar: Georg Zeppenfeld
Ännchen: Christina Landshamer
Kuno: Albert Dohmen
Eremit: Andreas Bauer
Ottokar: Adrian Eröd
Killian: Sebastian Wartig

New Production:
Direction: Axel Köhler
Sets: Arne Walther
Costumes: Katharine Weissenborn
Lighting: Fabio Antoci

Der Freischütz is one of those works that have an uneven acceptance among opera lovers. In German-speaking countries it is hugely popular and considered to be the first German national opera. In the countries of southern Europe it enjoys little favor, due mostly to the significant number of dialogues  ̶  in German, obviously  ̶  throughout the opera.

There was a lot of advance interest in this production of Der Freischütz because it’s the first time that Christian Thielemann has conducted Carl Maria von Weber’s masterwork. The performance satisfied one’s high expectations as far as the musical aspects were concerned, but the staging was not convincing. Finally, the cast did not live up to what we have been enjoying at the Semperoper under Mr. Thielemann.

In my opinion, we are not living in a time that lacks for great opera conductors, although many people will always believe that the past was better. Among the several excellent conductors of today, I think there are two really superb ones, each in his own repertoire, who can stand comparison with the best in history. I am referring to Riccardo Muti in Italian opera  ̶  Antonio Pappano permitting  ̶  and to Christian Thielemann in the German repertoire, especially Wagner and Richard Strauss.

So it is easy to understand the expectations raised by Thielemann’s presence in Der Freischütz. I have to say that the result was well worth the long trip: if only to hear his interpretation of the overture to the opera, my goal would have been more than fulfilled. He conducted with energy, drama and outstanding delicacy when it was required by the score, in a display of nuances very rarely felt. He has now reached such a degree of communion with his wonderful Staatskapelle Dresden that is difficult to think of a sound comparable to what this group produces under his baton. Mr. Thielemann is still the Semperoper’s big attraction internationally, although he is not its musical director, and his appearances will continue to draw aficionados from other countries. I hope to travel to Dresden whenever he conducts in the pit of this marvellous theatre.

As I mentioned above, the cast was disappointing. I would say that overall it did not go beyond an acceptable mediocrity. Max, the marksman in love with Agathe, was played by tenor Michael König, who has appeared in Spain on several occasions in recent years. His voice is not particularly beautiful nor does it achieve remarkable volume, and it’s a little tight at the top. On the other hand, his stature does make him a convincing hero on stage.

American soprano Rachel Willis Sorensen, the 2014 Operalia winner, was to have sung the part of Agathe, but she cancelled. She was replaced by her compatriot Sara Jakubiak, part of the Frankfurt Opera, and the choice to play the role of Eva in the next Bayreuth Festival. We lost something with this change (and I also think that Bayreuth could have found better options for the heroine of Meistersinger). Sara Jakubiac was a sensitive performer and sang with gusto, but she has a very impersonal voice, one of those that a listener quickly forgets.

The role of Kaspar was played by bass Georg Zeppenfeld, whose performance was disappointing. Kaspar is the evil in this opera, and that is what he has to transmit with his voice, but I did not find Zeppenfeld’s dark enough for this purpose. We would have gained if Albert Dohmen has sung Kaspar, and Zeppenfeld had taken the part of Kuno.

The role of Ännchen triggers something similar to the parts of Micaela or Sophie (in Rosenkavalier and Werther): in each case the character has the audience’s sympathy. It can be said that a soprano who does not succeed in Ännchen does not have a great future, and German soprano Christina Landshamer was, for me, a singer of little interest. Her light soprano is well-suited to the character, but without any brilliance and acid at the high notes.

In the supporting characters, Albert Dohmen was impressive in the part of Kuno. Andreas Bauer was also good as Eremit but somewhat short on authority and volume. Adrian Eröd was a serviceable Ottokar, and Sebastian Wartig did fine as Killian.

The new stage production by Axel Köhler passed with neither pain nor glory. The stage in Acts I and III holds a space surrounded by houses within a landscape in ruins. The second act features a small house on two levels: at the top is Agathe’s room, while at the bottom we seem to be underground. The scene of the Wolf’s Glen was quite childish, since only kids would be frightened by with what was offered. The costumes were traditional, and the lighting was also correct. The stage direction was not particularly compelling.

José M. Irurzun

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