Powerful Freischütz in Aix-en-Provence, Played From the Heart and Cast from Strength

FranceFrance Weber, Der Freischütz: Soloists, accentus, Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France,7.3.2019. (CC)

Der Freischütz © Julien Benhamou


Theatre Company 14:20 (Clément Debailleul, Raphaël Navarro — staging, magic(k)al conception and Valentine Losseau, director)
Assistant Director – Émilie Rault
Artistic co-ordinator, Scenography & Video – Clément Debailleul
Choreography – Aragorn Boulanger
Lighting – Elsa Revol
Lighting assistant – Sébastian Marc
Costumes – Siegrid Petit-Imbert


Max — Thomas Katajala
Agathe — Johanni van Oostrum
Ännchen — Chiara Skerath
Kaspar — Vladimir Baykov
Hermit, Voice of Samiel — Christian Immler
Kuno — Thorsten Grümbel
Ottokar — Samuel Hasselhorn
Kilian — Anas Séguin
Samiel — Clément Dazin

Weber’s Der Freischütz is a remarkable piece that, to this day, remains undervalued. This, despite recordings from the likes of Rafael Kubelík and Carlos Kleiber (the two most generally recommended versions), Jochum, Kleiber père and Furtwängler. It was good, then, to see a staging of incredible insight in tandem with a powerful, intense performance garlanded by a chorus of the highest level.

One could perhaps term Freischütz a Gothic opera; Weber’s sources stem originally from a collection of ghost stories by Johann August Apel and proceed via Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Gothic novel The Monk to a criminal report against a certain Georg Schmid in Bohemia who ‘confessed’ to a ghostly experience at a crossroads.

This production is in many ways the absolute antithesis of Jens Neubert’s naturalistic opera-film The Hunter’s Bride (see Musicweb-International reviews of the DVD here and the Blu-ray here). In the Aix production, we enter a fluid theatre in which video projections of Nature give way to more forbidding, bare spaces. There are floating orbs of light (this is an opera of the supernatural, and spirits are frequently seen – and caught on camera – as just such orbs). Lines of light are pulled down from above. In Act II the portrait of Agathe’s ancestor in her room moves, watching the characters on stage, following the goings-on. In that respect there are definite shades of Harry Potter, for sure, but also a blurring of the edges of what is real and what is not, a theme throughout this intensely thought-provoking staging. Together, Clément Debailleul and Raphaël Navarro (known collectively as ‘Compagnie 14:20’) bring in the idea of the magic of illusion. But the central supernatural event of Freischütz is a demonic evocation, of course: magick with a ‘k,’ in Aleister Crowley’s world. Whether this fictional Samiel, whose role in the opera is described as ‘the Black Huntsman’, is actually the better-known Samael, consort of Lilith, is perhaps a parenthetical idea (neither would be fun to deal with); more to the point, magic in this staging (the illusionists) mixes with a dramatisation of magick (the evocation of a demon), taking us on a thought-provoking journey all the way to modern magicians (illusionists) who court the idea that they are using ‘other’ forces and that their magic is ‘real’ (Dynamo, for example). All of this blurring of boundaries between what is real and what is not – whatever ‘real’ may be, anyway – is achieved brilliantly in this Aix staging, without a hint of kitsch. If this is a fairy tale, it is a very dark one.

Video is effectively used as part of the production’s vocabulary; the ability to move between that magical trickery and also to use an empty stage as the showcase for individual characters was impeccably managed; alone with their emotions, the audience’s attention is fully on those characters’ internal machinations. The true achievement of this staging, actually, was to bring home what a strong and powerful work of art Freischütz actually is.

Of the singers, it was the ladies who were by far the most consistently compelling; apt, perhaps, as the original title of the opera was Die Jägerbraut (hence Neubert’s title for his film). While the Agathe is the principal female role, this Agathe was almost upstaged by the Ännchen of the Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath. Skerath impressed in 1768: A Retrospective with The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall (review) and again as Ninetta in a semi-staged account of Mozart’s La finta semplice at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (review). Her Act II aria ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’ was a model of style, but more, it was the culmination of an interpretation that saw Skerath absolutely convincingly inside her character. Skerath’s voice is as smooth as silk, but of crystal clarity. It was good then that the Agathe herself, Johanni van Oostrum, is a powerful lyric soprano, her Act II prayer ‘Und ob die Wolke’ mesmeric in its concentration and with a superb solo cello contribution from Marco Frezzato. Van Oostrum has only been covered once before on Seen and Heard International as far as I can tell, as one of the Three Ladies in Zauberflöte at Berlin’s Komische Oper in 2014 (review here); on the present evidence, I am sure we will hear much more from her.

The Max, Thomas Katajala, seemed to go through his own journey during the course of the evening, weakish vocally at the start but redeeming himself by the close. His Act I aria, ‘Nein! Länger trag’ ich nicht … Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen’ was expressive but his voice needed more depth. His opening of the Act I trio ‘O, diese Sonne, furchtbar steigt sie mir empor’ was somewhat bleaty.  As the forester Kaspar Vladimir Baykov, a singer who has essayed Bluebeard in Helsinki, Gessler in Guillaume Tell in Hamburg, and Angelotti at the Liceu, was fabulous throughout, not least in his big number ‘Schweig’ schweig’! damit dich Niemand warnt’, while the folksy ‘Hier in ird’schen Jammertal’ had plenty of Schwung. The third member of the ‘O diese Sonne’ trio is Kuno, the role taken here by the excellent Thorsten Grümbel of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. The smaller roles of Kilian (a persuasive Anas Séguin) and Ottokar (the fine young German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn) were well cast.

The mysterious figure of the Hermit, who arrives only in the very latter stages of the opera, carrying with him shades of Wotan (itself part of the hermit archetype), was taken by Christian Immler, who doubled as the voice of Samiel (the astonishing dancer Clément Dazin spectacular as the physical incarnation). Here, the Hermit combines the archetypes of Wanderer and Wise Man and brings a solution to the moral conundrums the characters face in the wake of the death of Kaspar and the magickal meddlings with the web of fate. His voice could perhaps have been fuller for the gravity of his pronouncements, but his stage presence was undeniable.

The chorus, Equilbey’s own accentus choir, was by far the finest chorus I have come across in the opera house, from the vibrant jubilation of the opening chorus ‘Viktoria!  Viktoria! Der Meister soll leben!’ to the famous Huntsmens’ Chorus, here lusty and full of life. The orchestra itself was responsive to each and every subtlety thanks to the direction of Equilbey (briefly visible from the stalls thanks to a reflective surface at one point). The standard of performance on period instruments was astonishing, especially the horns (worth listing in full, given they acted so brilliantly as a unit: Georg Koehler, Gilbert Cami-Farras, Yannick Maillet, Pierre Rougerie), while the thigh-slapping rustic waltz preceding the Act I aria ‘Durch die Wälder’ had tremendous verve and vivacity. The Overture set the scene perfectly, including the first of many wonderful clarinet solos over the course of the evening from Vincenzo Casale. Played from the heart and cast from strength, this powerful Freischütz reminded us just how strong a piece this opera can be.

This was a co-production between Théâtre de Caen, Grand Théâtre du Luxembourg, Opéra de Rouen Normandie, Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Compagnie 14:20, accentus, in collaboration with ENSATT (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Techniques du Thèâtre). Performed at Caen earlier in March; Freischütz goes on to further concert performances in Brussels on March 17 and one at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, on March 22. The Brussels performance will be recorded for later broadcast by the Belgian station Radio Klara (https://klara.be).

UK readers will be pleased to hear there will be a concert performance at the Barbican on November 4 this year.

Colin Clarke

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