The OAE’s 30th Anniversary Der Freischütz Hits the Bullseye

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber: Soloists, London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.6.2016. (JPr)

Der Freischütz

David Pountney: Stage Direction, New English Narration

Christopher Ventris: Max
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: Agathe
Sarah Tynan: Ännchen
Sir John Tomlinson: Narrator, Hermit, Samiel
Marcus Farnsworth: Kilian
Wyn Pencarreg: Kuno
Simon Bailey: Kaspar
William Dazeley: Ottokar

Can anyone explain why Der Freischütz is never given much of a chance anymore in Britain? Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 melodrama is considered a prototypical nationalistic opera and a landmark of the German Romanticism that reached its zenith in the works of Richard Wagner. I remember fondly performances at Covent Garden in the early 1980s with Alberto Remedios as Max and Donald McIntyre as Kaspar. Since then there have been occasional concert performances such as this but nothing else that I can particularly recall. Nevertheless, Der Freischütz is still frequently performed across the Channel and especially in Germany, of course.

Weber’s opera offers magical settings and the eternal battle between good and evil. It concerns 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, Kaspar – the blackest of black-hearted operatic villains – has earlier made that pact with the devil, trading his soul for the magic bullets. He hopes to exchange Max for himself as 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 Kaspar and the devil claims him. 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 German Romantic folklore, with even more of the supernatural added.

I always enjoy this opera and were the story not enough on its own for me, it has all the musical ingredients that should ensure continuous popularity: an endlessly melodious score whose tunes are very familiar (ok hummable!) and include the famous overture, Agathe’s aria ‘Leise, leise’ (Softly, softly), and the wonderfully atmospheric Wolf’s Glen scene. Many other works that are revived endlessly offer much less. On the downside, there is the dialogue that moves the tale along in fits and starts so it is just a ‘number opera’ that is very typical of its time. Then again, dialogue has never stopped Carmen from being, quite probably, the world’s most popular opera.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment celebrated their thirtieth birthday with this concert. Over the decades they have had a close association with the music of Weber so it has been an idea of theirs to put on the composer’s most famous work and finally this wish has been fulfilled. I will not enter the debate about period instruments as it had always been my contention that had composers prior to the late-nineteenth century known the developments there would be, they would never condone looking back to their own time. Weber introduces hunters’ horns and cleverly uses various instruments to depict natural and supernatural phenomena. The chorus is used to spooky effect to be scary spirits. Weber uses other instruments, such as the clarinet, to express the emotions and frustrations of young, sentimental love. I would not be the first to suggest that Rossini would not have taken the musical and dramatic risks he did in Guillaume Tell had there not been Der Freischütz. This opera is also clearly one where soloists, chorus and orchestra are full partners in a very early blueprint for a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art); the musico-dramatic concept that Richard Wagner, an admirer of Weber’s compositions, would continue in his own operas. Weber was a master of orchestral writing and the range and changes of mood he employs showed the young Wagner just how well music could carry an opera through.

The OAE love this sort of thing and under the always cool, calm and collected Sir Mark Elder it was on splendid form for this gala occasion. Nothing they did threatened to overwhelm the more delicately orchestrated numbers and the valveless trumpets and horns were often very evocative. The downside is that when played in an exposed fashion – and particularly when first played – there is no denying the effort needed to get sounds from them. The ensemble played with primitive charm and no little visceral excitement when required from the sinister low woodwind to doom-laden drumstrokes. The London Philharmonic Choir was, as appropriate, convincing peasants, huntsmen and bridesmaids although it took all of Mark Elder’s years of experience to keep everyone together in some of the trickier passages.

This was my kind of concert opera performance: there were no music stands or scores for the soloists and there was some use made of the performance space and even some props and sound effects. The dress code was a little confusing because it varied from Kaspar, who appeared to have brought along his own costume, and Agathe, who might even have been wearing her own white wedding dress, to Max who was just in shirt and trousers. The vastly experienced David Pountney was credited with the stage direction but I am sure the singers could have managed what we saw if left to their own devices. I wasn’t certain about the septet that surrounded Max at the start of Act I as a band of peasants but the bridesmaids’ chorus in Act III (made up of young singers from the Royal Academy of Music) was an absolute delight.

David Pountney was credited with a ‘New English Narration’ which replaced most of the dialogue. This was intoned by Sir John Tomlinson as the Hermit chronicling the goings-on in his community. I suspect this was cobbled together from the stage directions and characters’ dialogue. At some points he read what they would have been saying whilst the singers were engaged in dumb show. In part there may have been some underlying political message because we heard about soldiers returning from war, starving peasants, the mistreatment of poachers, Agatha’s bourgeois hovel etc. etc. Sir John was in costume and seated at a writing desk reading a script he was not particularly familiar with so it lacked a little spontaneity. When he donned a black cloak to join in more regularly as a sulphurous Samiel for the famous Wolf’s Glen scene that closes Act II, the singers resorted to the spoken German dialogue (surtitled in English) and it was all so much better.

Men’s voices predominate during the rustic events which form Act I. Christopher Ventris – who is a rare visitor to his homeland – was a stalwart Max, lacking a smidgeon of poetry in his voice. Simon Bailey was his nemesis Kaspar and with an OTT demonic laugh he would have chewed the scenery had there been any scenery to chew. In the devilish goings-on of the Wolf’s Glen he was at his best and brought a much needed dramatic frisson to the proceedings. Marcus Farnsworth (Kilian), Wyn Pencarreg (Kuno) and William Dazeley (Ottokar) were perfectly acceptable but 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 (the radiant Rachel Willis-Sørensen), a song for her cousin Ännchen, entertainingly sung by a perky, stylish, bright-toned Sarah Tynan, and a chorus – one of several imitation folksongs – with a fine contribution from those bridesmaids. (I had read about Rachel Willis-Sørensen and sighed at hearing (yet) another American soprano … that was until she started singing and I was captivated!) The opera’s dénouement comes after another huntsmen’s chorus and then words of wisdom from a Hermit, the wonderful Sir John Tomlinson of course who showed all the other baritones and basses on the platform how it should be done. The thematic material of the overture – which also concludes Agathe’s delightful first aria – returns one last time to bring about the happy ending when it is revealed the forgiven Max can marry Agathe after a year’s probation.

Jim Pritchard

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