The Magic of Der Freischütz Competes with a Director’s Nervous Tic

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Weber, Der Freischütz: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich/Marc Albrecht (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich. 9.10.2016. (RP)


Fürst Ottokar – Oliver Widmer
Kuno – Pavel Daniluk
Agathe – Lise Davidsen
Ännchen – Mélissa Petit
Kaspar – Christof Fischesser
Max – Christopher Ventris
A hermit – Wenwei Zhang
Kilian – Yuriy Tsiple
Samiel – Florian Anderer
First huntsman – Benjamin Mathis
Second huntsman – Sebastian Zuber

Production, video and set – Herbert Fritsch
Costumes – Victoria Behr
Lighting – Torsten König
Chorus-master – Jürg Hämmerli
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn

Let’s start with the costumes. Victoria Behr took traditional Bavarian folk garb for a starting point. Then, she or her assistants went to a fabric store and picked out the brightest colors and the boldest, most vibrant designs – taste be damned. The result was an explosion of color that captured the magical and mystical world of Der Freischütz. The hats and headdresses were equally fantastic; some of the men were practically wearing gardens on their heads. Samiel aka Mephistopheles was the devil incarnate, all in red with a long tail. Max and his henchmen wore bright green suits with jaunty hats, appropriate for denizens of the forest. The hermit that appears at the end of the opera was a straw figure drawn from the Bavarian carnival or pre-Lenten festivities. Her most lavish creations, however, were Agathe’s two gowns: the first in rich blue, the second, her wedding dress, a lavish, lighter-than-air creation topped off with an elaborate floral wedding wreath that encircled her face. It was if she had just stepped out of a Winterhalter portrait of some nineteenth-century, mildly deranged princess.

Herbert Fritsch’s stage design was spare, consisting only of a church that dissembled and levitated as the evil engulfed Kaspar in his quest for the magic bullets. It brought to mind a few productions by Jonathan Miller and Robert Wilson from the 1990s and, like them, was similarly evocative and powerful in its simplicity. The church opened to reveal a swirl of flowers that served as Agathe’s chamber. Admittedly, Fritsch’s concept did next to nothing to evoke the forest and especially the Wolf’s Glen that is so integral to the story. Likewise, the eagle, guns, bullets and many other such elements essential to the story were nowhere to be seen, but Fritsch nonetheless succeeded in creating a magical setting. However, as with his production of Purcell’s King Arthur for the Zurich Opera last year, he ultimately undermined it.

It started with the pulsating and constantly contracting circles in muted colors that were projected during the overture. They harkened back to the work of the Light and Space generation of artists from the late 1960s and were just as mesmerizing – dangerously so. I had to force myself to look at the conductor to concentrate on the music and avoid slipping into a trance-like state. Florian Anderer’s Samiel, wonderful as he was, was constantly slithering across the stage, climbing the church steeple or performing acrobatic stunts. Indeed, there were two real acrobats in white suspended from above and executing their routines during the Wolf’s Glen scene. Max and his gang gamely hammed it up, much like Leprechaun-Green versions of the Keystone Cops. Perhaps most distracting was Agathe’s constant swaying during her Act III aria, ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’/’Through clouds obscure still shines the sun’. (Just because it worked in the Purcell, doesn’t means it works in every opera.) Although the incessant movement on stage was subtle, as compared to the racket in King Arthur, it became just as annoying. Worse, it drew one one’s attention away from the music and at times overwhelmed it, which was the real pity.

Marc Albrecht led a buoyant, almost sparkling performance of Weber’s seminal opera with its colorful depictions of rustic life, the spooky supernatural and tender romance. From the first notes of the overture, you sensed that he had this music in his blood. The Philharmonia Zurich responded in kind, playing with fleetness and vibrancy throughout, deftly capturing the lush romanticism and rich colors of Weber’s score. My only criticism is that Albrecht’s approach was too subtle to compete with the on-stage antics. At times you had to strain to hear the music, one such instance being the quartet the bridesmaids sing as they open the box that supposedly contains the bridal wreath. With all of the visual nervous tics, the music at times just receded into the background.

The cast was particularly fine. Christopher Ventris as Max was costumed in rather drab colors, with ashen skin and deep circles under his eyes, desperate to win Agathe as his bride. His voice, however, was clear and strong, and Max’s aria ‘Durch die Wälder’/’Through woods and fields’ was one of the evening’s vocal highlights. Almost doll-like in appearance (albeit a strikingly tall one), Lise Davidsen was visually perfect as Agathe with a voice to match. Her companion and cousin, Ännchen, was sung by Mélissa Petit – wild in appearance, with straw-colored locks that stood on end. The voice that emerged was beautiful with a touch of metal to it, perhaps silver, that gave an added luster to her singing. Bass Christof Fischesser was remarkably agile physically, and vocally imposing as Max. Two Zurich regulars, Oliver Widmer and Wenwei Zhang, gave particularly forthright, rich-voiced portrayals of Fürst Ottokar, who banishes Max due to his pact with the devil, and the hermit, whose earlier prophesy to Agathe proves true and in the end absolves Max from his deeds. (It is a love story after all.)

The curtain calls showcased the chorus as individuals and principals alike as they appeared on the revolving stage, giving the audience one last chance to appreciate the ingenious costumes. It was hard to gage the audience’s reaction to the production, but it rewarded the cast, chorus, its conductor, the orchestra and Albrecht with generous applause. I could not help thinking, however, that Fritsch just does not get opera at some basic level. He operates under the assumption that an opera audience requires constant visual stimulation. That’s not the case. Sometimes music requires only stillness, and Fritsch doesn’t grasp that. I have cursed the black and white far too often, however, not to embrace this extravagant explosion of color.

Rick Perdian

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