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Opera: Der Freischütz (Bayerische Staatsoper)

01 April 2021

Roderic Dunnett joined the audience online

wilfried hÖsl

Pavel Cernoch and Kyle Ketelsen in Der Freischutz

Pavel Cernoch and Kyle Ketelsen in Der Freischutz

MOZART’s much younger cousin by marriage, Carl Maria von Weber died at the age of 39 in 1826. His most successful opera, Der Freischütz (1821), rarely put on in England, is a kind of national treasure in Germany, and has just been staged online by the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

In a classic tale of good versus evil, Max, a young woodsman, craves to win the pure and noble Agathe, but to succeed allows himself to be duped into a near-fatal pact with the devil.

Freischütz (meaning “Free Shot”) is often rendered as “The Devil’s Marksman”. There is a folk tradition that the devil, here called Samiel (the Talmudic fallen Angel of Death), offers a sinister deal. A huntsman (Jäger) is endowed with seven bullets: six are guaranteed to hit whatever he aims at. The seventh “belongs to the devil” and will veer astray to strike whomever this unseen fiend elects to slay.

The vulnerable young Max, a hopeless shot, is desperate to impress his prospective father-in-law and fellows to win the stainless and angelic girl.
Weber’s music is stupendous and original, with highly imaginative orchestration.

The conducting here, by the Turin maestro Antonello Manacorda, was excellent. The award-winning Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production and design set the action in the modern corporate business world.

As mentally torn, lumbering Max, the Moravian (Czech) Pavel Cernoch’s voice rivalled the Heldentenor greats in this pre-Wagnerian ultra-Romantic idiom, and was pure heaven.

“Heavenly” aptly characterises the yearning love object, Agathe, sung by the South African-born and Munich-trained Golda Schultz. Such “pure” roles are her speciality. With childlike innocence, Agathe’s two most beautiful arias floated on air, and her soft, tender, God-fearing words spoke loud. The clarinet-enhanced “Leise, leise” (“Waft softly, gentle air on high, to the stars above; wing my prayer to the Lord of Heaven”) and the breathtaking, cello-underwritten “Und ob die Wolke” — “. . . The sun remains above the clouds, and only God’s holy will reigns there” — spoke volumes.

With the action transferred to a sort of Wall Street setting, the initial folk dances, which should enliven the atmosphere and thus enhance the irony, were displaced by a team of desultory lackeys at a boozy corporate do, who merely distracted me from Max’s charming and optimistic key aria “Durch die Wälder . . .” (“Through the woods and meadows”). I had some misgivings about the stage movement of the principals, too. There was a huge clock whose timings — a sinister commentary — usually seemed awry. Huge mock-bullets were mounted like fluffy footballs on garlanded pedestals by bow-tied menials.

The essence of Der Freischütz lies in the seduction of the naïve Max by his fellow-woodsman — purported friend but scheming rival — Kaspar. This vile, malign figure tempts Max with a mysterious offer of shooting expertise, then lures him to the Wolf’s Glen (Wolfschlucht), in which they will together — albeit Max reluctantly — forge the six triumphant and seventh (fatal) bullets. It is a place of spirits and shadows, of darkness and death. By dicing with the devil, in contrast, Max engages with the very antithesis of his blameless fiancée. He is, indeed, entering hell.

The ever-plotting Kaspar, whose only early prop consists of a cigarette that he keeps corrupting Max into sharing (likewise, the head ranger Kuno toys endlessly with a cigar), emerged as a vivid, slimy, hyperactive character in the capable hands of the impressive American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen.

Tcherniakov made Kaspar, in mid-bullet-casting, sing the words of Samiel as well. Thus the cavernous voice of a usually unseen controlling and diabolical being was dumped, and the infernal Samiel became a conceit or alter ego of Kaspar himself. When the terrible, final seventh bullet, intended to murder Agathe, instead kills Kaspar, he is depicted as the inner source rather than obedient acolyte of the demonic.

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