Sunday, 26 May 2013

Der Freischutz - Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischutz caused quite a stir after its premiere in 1821 in Berlin. But the opera's more recent history has been less happy. Weber's operas are seen as important precursors of Wagner's, but seem to have had difficulty being accepted in their own right, with the sometimes fragile charm of Der Freischutz being overlaid with a konzept. The work's recent stage history in the UK has been rather sparse, mainly relying on concert performances (Covent Garden last staged it in 1989). This disc was recorded at a pair of concerts in 2012 when Sir Colin Davis conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and a stellar cast including Simon O'Neil, Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews, Stephan Loges and Lars Woldt. Davis had a long-ish history with the work as he conducted Covent Garden's 1977 production (directed by Götz Friedrich) and all its revivals. On these discs Davis conducts the full London Symphony Chorus and an orchestra of over 80 with a pair of leading Wagnerian singers in the main roles, this is Der Freischutz on the grand scale.

Ironically, 2012 also saw John Eliot Gardiner perform the work at the Proms with his Orchestra Revolutionaire et Romantique. Gardiner used Berlioz's adaptation for Paris, with a ballet and recitatives. But more importantly Gardiner used a cast of essentially lyric singers; probably singers more of the type that Weber would have known.

Whereas for his performances, Davis definitely viewed the work through post-Wagnerian glasses. His cast would have worked well in Wagner or Beethoven. In fact, he could have given a pretty terrific performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. But Fidelio is an heroic opera, one which transcends the limitations of the genre.  Der Freischutz isn't heroic, it is firmly written in the early 19th century Romantic tradition and this needs to be accepted. It would take Wagner to see the possibilities that Weber offered, and stretch the genre.

The key moment in Der Freischutz is the Wolf's glen scene. This can take the weight of full Wagnerian interpretation, but the rest of the opera is a more delicate, complex thing full of nature, romanticism, moonlight and fragile fears.

Having Max sung by a tenor with Wagnerian credentials can work, I heard both Alberto Remedios and Rene Kollo in the role at Covent Garden in the 1980's. But it requires a certain facility, flexibility and focus to the voice. This Simon O'Neil has. He sings Max with a narrow focus of voice and a wiry strength, nicely shaping the line and unleashing dramatic power where necessary. Though the voice is quite bright and heroic, it is not always the most ingratiating of instruments and there are times when he seems a bit constricted at the top.

Traditionally Agathe is sung by a heavy-ish lyric soprano (at Covent Garden I heard Helena Döse and a young Karita Mattila), Davis opted for the full dramatic power of Christine Brewer. Brewer is no typical Wagner soprano and still sings a very wide range of roles and is capable of remarkable control and subtlety with her voice. Her act three cavatina is a thing of great expressive beauty, with a wonderfully lyrically controlled line and some beautifully floated top notes. The opening of her act two scena is similarly moving. But in the faster section the way she moves her voice round the notes, remarkable and thrilling though it is, rather pushes the piece out of context. This is more Fidelio than Der Freischutz, making Agathe too heroic. And I have to confess that the upper register does rather sound uneven at times.

To complement Agathe, there is her cousin Annchen. This is more of a soubrette role, think Susanna complementing the Countess, or Blonde complementing Konstanze. Instead Davis has opted for a bigger, more lyric, less soubrette voice, Sally Matthews (who does sing the Countess). Matthews sings with warm charm and a richly vibrant voice, but for me she lacks the pertness necessary. Her tone is a little to serious, not teasing enough. And though we have plenty of warm tone, the passage-work is not ideal. But she does blend beautifully with Brewer in their duet.

In trio towards the end of act two, all these virtues and problems are apparent. Brewer, Matthews and O'Neill balance and complement each other nicely, but both Brewer and O'Neill seem to be under pressure at times and Matthews needs to sound more pertly relaxed.

The closing scene of act two is the Wolf's Glen scene when Caspar (Lars Woldt) invokes Samiel (Stephan Loges) and Max watches him cast the magic bullets. 20 minutes of sheer romantic magic, and here Davis is in his element and brings everything together into a finely judged and paced whole, supported not only by the soloists but by the terrific London Symphony Chorus.  Lars Woldt is a robustly expressive Caspar, displaying some lovely dark tones in the lower register particularly in his act one aria, where he captures the dark edge of the character. He does not over do things in the Wolf's Glen scene, which is a relief.

Stephan Loges makes a nicely chilling Samiel, and sings Ottokar, the Duke of Bohemia as well. Martin Snell is darkly focussed as Kuno the game keeper and Marcus Farnsworth makes a nicely pointed Killian. Gidon Saks sings the small, but important role of the hermit, Lucy Hall sings all all four of the bridesmaids solos in the act three chorus, and does so quite beautilfully.

The Wolf's Glen scene and the fully worked out finale (also 20 minutes) give us an idea of what Weber might have been able to do with a through-composed Romantic opera if he had lived, and if he had been able to find a suitable libretto. (After Der Freischutz he wrote two more operas, Euryanthe and Oberon neither of which can be said to have librettos which are satisfactory). But Weber wrote Der Freischutz as a singspiel, with spoken dialogue. This is omitted completely here, it is neither spoken nor printed in the booklet. This means that the characters lack a degree of interaction, Agathe and Max hardly talk to each other for instance. And Weber's arias and set pieces come over more as found objects rather than developing from the drama. But rather no dialogue than other alternatives such as a linking narration.

Davis clearly loved the opera and drew very fine playing from the LSO. From the opening moments of the overture, it is clear that the orchestra is one of the stars of this piece and throughout their playing impresses with some lovely solo moments as well.

The set is split over two CD's but the split is rather frustrating as it takes place just before the Wolf's Glen scene (which is in fact the last scene of act 2). The CD booklet includes a short introduction by David Cairns, a full summary and text (in German and English) but with no information about what takes place between the musical numbers.

It is difficult to give this set a completely unqualified recommendation. If you are interested in a traditional, grand interpretation then it might be better to look to an earlier era. Carlos Kleiber's recording with Dresden Staatskapelle, Gundula Janowitz and Peter Schreier (though Schreier is not to everyone's taste) is over 30 years old, but does have dialogue. Even older, and also still with dialogue, is the Joseph Keilberth set with the Berlin Philharmonic, Elisabeth Grummer and Rudolf Schock.

For many reasons though, this recording will have a place for individual contributions but not least for Davis's vision of the opera combined with the fact that it was almost certainly his last operatic recording.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826) - Der Freischutz (1821) [122.43]
Agathe - Christine Brewer (soprano)
Annchen - Sally Matthews (soprano)
Max - Simon O'Neill (tenor)
Kaspar - Lars Woldt (bass-baritone)
Samiel/Ottokar - Stephan Loges (bass-baritone)
Kuno - Martin Snell (bass)
Ein Eremit - Gidon Saks (bass)
Kilian - Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Bridesmaids - Lucy Hall (soprano)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
Recorded live 19 & 21 April 2012 at the Barbican, London
LSO Live LSO0726 2CD [64.20, 58.23]

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