United States Weber, Der Freischütz: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra / Daniel Schlosberg (conductor), The Heartbeat Opera, Rose Nagelberg Theatre, New York, 7.12.2019. (RP)
Director & Adaptor – Louisa Proske
Director – Chloe Treat
Sets – Sara Brown
Costumes – Beth Goldenberg
Lighting – Oliver Wason
Electronics – Will Gardiner
Sound – Will Torres
Props – Corinne Gologursky
Fight Director – Rick Sordelet
Kaspar – Daniel Klein
Agathe – Katherine Whyte
Max – Casey Candebat
Ännchen – Nicole Haslett
Hermit – Eric Delagrange
Kilian, Ottokar – Quentin Oliver Lee
Kuno – Kevin McGuire
Samiel – azumi O E
Updating an opera comes with risks, especially when the best-known scene is transformed musically almost beyond recognition. Heartbeat Opera took the gamble with Weber’s Der Freischütz and won. For the beauty and charm of Weber’s score, it’s probably best to go back to the original, but for an engrossing evening in the theater, Heartbeat Opera found the magic bullet.
Setting Weber’s opera in contemporary small-town America scored points for making the kitschiness and the supernatural elements relevant. But the real power of the production came from Louisa Proske and Chloe Treat’s use of the entire theater as a stage, plus Daniel Schlosberg and Will Gardiner’s remarkably imaginative and effective reworking of the score. They threw a lot at the audience, but it emerged as a coherent whole.
The action was set in an American town with a testosterone-fueled culture. The barmaids wear sexy cowgirl outfits and boots. Kaspar is an Iraqi War veteran who has made a deal with the devil, while Max is a befuddled but earnest young man. To prove his manhood and win Agathe as his wife, Max has to prove that he’s a good shot. Kaspar snares the unwitting Max into a deal with the devil, who is envisioned as a Japanese Butoh dancer (the absolutely amazing azumi O E). In the final scene, the Hermit appears with an automatic weapon, terrorizing both the townsfolk and the audience, but he is actually an agent of forgiveness and mercy.
Sara Brown, the scenic designer, made ingenuous use of the limited space with which she had to work in the black-box theater. Most of the action played out on a small square of the theater floor with the audience surrounding it on three sides. For those sitting in one the front rows, as I was, there was a total immersion in the action. When a mangy eagle, which Max shot with his first magic bullet, dropped to the floor, a woman sitting across from me jumped with a start.
At the rear of the space, Brown devised a building that turned into Agathe’s house with the simple raising of the blinds: a cozy haven from the spookiness that lurked outsider her door. In the final scene, Ottokar, Kuno and others observed Max’s final shot from a platform in the middle of the theater, while the chorus encircled the audience from above and below. When the Hermit (the excellent and particularly menacing bass-baritone Eric Delagrange) pointed his gun at me, it was one of the most visceral experiences that I have ever had in the theater.
I wouldn’t have traded my seat for any in the house: it afforded me the opportunity to watch Schlosberg and six remarkable musicians. The ingenious reworking of the score captured the color and excitement of Weber’s original as well as much of its charm. For the arias, Schlosberg devised staid, chamber-music-like reductions of the accompaniments that kept their musical integrity intact. He and concertmaster Jacob Ashworth performed the brief overture to the second act in a four-hand piano arrangement that also served as an anchor to the original musical style of the opera.
At other times, however, there was a riot of sounds emerging from the band of musicians on instruments that ranged from the accordion, musical saw and prepared piano to the kazoo. The opera’s famous Wolf’s Glen (restyled as Wolf Canyon) was a wild, intense ride in which the ensemble’s playing devolved into an electronic frenzy of evil gone haywire.
This crazy, convoluted mix of styles worked, especially as embodied in the wild-eyed, desperate Kaspar of Daniel Klein and in Katherine Whyte’s touching portrayal of Agathe. Whyte’s lyric soprano filled out Weber’s melodies beautifully, while Klein sang with a feral intensity. Tenor Casey Candebat has a powerhouse of a voice. His Max was a bit inert physically, but there was drama and excitement in every note that he sang.
With her disarming manner and beautiful lyric soprano, Nicole Haslett turned Ännchen’s cheery Act III aria into one of the performance’s musical highlights. Kevin McGuire was an avuncular, clear-voiced Kuno, while baritone Quentin Oliver Lee’s baritone was almost too pretty and elegant for Ottokar, the head honcho of the machismo bunch that taunts Max.
If the concept has a fault, it is the treatment of rural America as flyover country and the people who live there as stereotypes. There is much more nuance to be found in the rural parts of the country than was depicted in the broad-brushed characterizations, especially of the men who, with the exception of the conflicted Max, mostly came off as trigger-happy, good old boys. If Proske and Treat wanted to go for the gut (and there were a thousand reasons for restraint), there should have been a few MAGA hats and NRA pins. Provocative, perhaps, but it would have been honest and fitting for a creative team that sought to tackle toxic masculinity and gun violence, two of the burning issues of the day, within the framework of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, and managed to do so.
For information on upcoming performances of Heartbeat Opera’s Der Freischütz, click here.