Sunday 11 September 2011

Review of Der Freischutz at the Proms

For an opera described as Weber's masterwork, Der Freischutz remains a relatively rare visitor to the UK's stages. It's combination of the gothic horror of the Wolf's Glen scene with a heroine of remarkable drippiness perhaps means the work is not as enticing as it might be. In fact Weber's other two major operas remain almost as enticing, even though they present interesting theatrical problems. Oberon with its hobbled plot remains a tantalising what if Weber had lived to revise it, but is rescued by a ravishing score. And Euryanthe with its proto Lohengrin plot and dramatic music almost overcoming the fatal weakness of the libretto.

Rather curiously Der Freischutz's outing at the Proms (Friday 9th September), performed by John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, was in a French incarnation revised by Berlioz.  Eliot Gardiner and his forces had performed the opera in Paris at the Opera Comique in a production by Dan Jemmett as part of the Opera Comique's rediscovery of rare 19th century French repertoire. (They are staging Auber's La Muette de Portici next spring). Berlioz's adaptation was done for the Paris Opera where, in order to perform the work, it needed recitatives and a ballet.

So, fearing someone else might do the job a hell of a lot worse, Berlioz set to and added recitatives, a couple of dance movements from other Weber operas and a 3rd Act ballet based on Weber's Invitation to the Dance. Despite Berlioz's participation, the result has curiosity interest only, valuable mainly for the way it illuminates 19th century tastes and for admrining the way Berlioz skill preserved as much of Weber as possible.

But just as Carmen and Les Contes d'Hoffmann change considerably in their dramatic feel when performed wth recitatives, so does Der Freischutz. Inevitably recitative slows things down and we miss Weber's carefully planned contrasts between speech and music. No place more so than the Wolf's Glen scene where the removal of substantial melodrama (in the strict sense of spoken word over music) moves the piece more into the conventional direction.

Performing with a period orchestra Eliot Gardiner took advantage of the rethinking of Weber's orchestral textures to similarly rethink casting. Max is conventionally cast as a jugend dramatisch tenor (even a helden tenor); I saw Alberto Remedios in the role at Covent Garden (with Helena Dose as Agathe). Here it was sung by Andrew Kennedy, a far more lyric voice. In the relatively small confines of the Opera Comique, Kennedy's combination of lyricism and forthright committment would probably have had a strong effect. But in the vast expanses of the Albert Hall there were moments when I longed for the ringing tones of Remedios or John Upperton (who sang the role recently with Midsummer Opera). That said, I have rarely heard Max sung so beautifully and the role must count as a serious triumph for Kennedy and an indication of his seriousness as an operatic performer.

Max's love interest, Agathe, was sung by Sophie Karthauser, again Eliot Gardiner casting a lyric voice where we might expect something more. Karthauser brought great beauty to the role and conveyed Agathe's anxiety with nervous intensity. Agathe is a real drip and when performed by a jugend dramatisch soprano the mis-match between vocal tones and character can be disturbing. So it is a pleasure to report that Karthauser's characterisation was all of a piece, and she sang Agathe's great solo, 'Leise, leise' with dignity and beauty.

Agathe's companion, here renamed Annette, is a gift of a role, calling for a lyric soubrette with a gift for comedy. Virginie Pochon did not disappoint and she charmed and sparkled, providing much needed dramatic contrast.

The villain of the piece Gaspard (renamed from Caspar) was sung (if that is the right word) by Gidon Saks. Saks seemed to compensate for the lack of melodrama by performing in a comically melodramatic manner. His over the top performance, including frequent stage whispered incantations to Samiel, the black huntsman, threatened to push the performance into comedy. For me, he all but ruined the Wolf's Glen scene, indicating that often less really is more.

It didn't help that Christian Pelissier's appearances in the spoken role of Samiel verged into something like the Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari. I began to seriously wonder what the Opera Comique's production had been like.

Samuel Evans made a personable Kilian, the young man who bests Max in the shooting contest at the start of the opera. Matthew Brook provided strong support as Agathe's father and Robert Davies was suitably impressive in the small but important role of the Prince Ottakar.

The Monteverdi Choir were in fine form and their intensely involved performance had obviously benefitted from the run of stage performance. The glory of the evening though was the playing of the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Weber's orchestration seems to respond beautifully period performance practice and here under Eliot Gardiner the orchestra were not exception. Featuring a big ensemble, with 40 string players, the results were substantial yet transparent, with JEG's speeds keeping a lively flexibility. Hearing and seeing them in this I began to dream of the possibility of a proms Lohengrin using period forces.

This was a long but involving evening, over 3 hours including just one 20 minute interval. The singers committment to their roles and the sympathetic semi-staging obviously made us benefit from the run of staged performances. There was nothing stiff and concert-like about this evening.

I could have wished that we'd got to hear the opera in Weber's original, nonetheless the results were vividly dramatic even if the Weber/Berlioz version of the opera remains something of a curate's egg.

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