Friday 20 April 2012

Opera Review - Der Freischutz

Weber's operas form important pre-cursors to Wagner's works; Euryanthe being seen as an important forerunner to Lohengrin and Der Freischutz including the sort of folkloric German Romanticsm which would influence Wagner; the Wolf's Glen scene forming an interesting harbinger of The Flying Dutchman.

In the 20th and 21st centuries this view has meant that for singers, Weber's operas are seen either as a stepping stone to Wagner or as a nice sideline for Wagnerian singers. So that Rita Hunter recorded the Ortrud like role of Eglantine in Euryanthe (one of Hunter's few studio recordings) with Jessye Norman (herself a Sieglinde) in the title role. When Covent Garden revived Der Freischutz in 1982, Max was sung by Alberto Remedios and in 1989 Rene Kollo sang the role. Kubelik's classic recording of the opera include Hildegard Behrens and Rene Kollo.

But period performance has shown us that Weber's music responds to period instruments and practice. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 1994 gave a highly successful concert performance of Euryanthe. John Eliot Gardiner has staged Oberon and more recently his account of the Berlioz arrangement of Der Freischutz was seen at the Opera Comique and at the Proms.

So it was with great interest that we went to the Barbican last night (19 April) to hear Colin Davis and the LSO perform Der Freischutz with a pair of leading Wagnerians (Christine Brewer and Simon O'Neill) in the roles of Agathe and Max.

Davis, predictably, used no concessions to period practice; the orchestra was huge (over 60 string players) along with the massed ranks of the LSO chorus, meaning the platform was overflowing. Davis's account was firmly in the camp of Weber seen through Wagner's lenses, string playing was plush and well upholstered, gorgeous in sound but lacking the bound, lift and air that period practice might bring to it.

The opera was sung in German with a spoken English narration written by Amanda Holden and delivered by Malcolm Sinclair. This was sober, well judged, informative and engaging with Sinclair never outstaying his welcome. If we have to have a narration, let it be like this.

There were some truly beautiful moments in the performance, but too often the arias came over as lovely artefacts rather than elements in a drama. Simon O'Neill did attempt some engagement with other singers and Lars Woldt (a last minute replacement as Kaspar) looked suitably grim when not singing, but Christine Brewer remained impassive when not actually singing.

When I interview Christine Brewer a few years ago she talked about how she still sang Mozart and Handel as exercise for her voice. Certainly it has preserved a degree of line and freshness remarkable in a singer who includes Isolde and the Dyers Wife in her repertoire and who has considered Brunnhilde.  Her act 3 cavatina was truly beautiful, with Brewer thinning her voice down finely. And the big act 2 solo, Leise, leise had some superb moments. But the upper part of her voice has a sort of critical mass which is hard to disguise and there was a robustness and inflexibleness to some of the delivery. Quite simply, this Agathe seemed too mature, too experienced, too developed to be pray to such nightmares as the character suffers.

I couldn't help feeling that Sally Matthews, who sang Ännchen, would have been ideally placed to sing Agathe. Ännchen is a soubrette role and Matthews isn't really a soubrette, she's a lyric who is developing a nice dramatic edge. That said she sang well bringing a neat liveliness and expressivity to the role. But without the perky smile to the voice that a singer like Lucia Popp had and which the role needs. Ännchen needs to be fun and Matthews was a little earnestly serious, but with an Agathe as impressively massive of voice as Brewer that's not a surprise.

Simon O'Neill sang Max with a nice sense of line and a bright ping to the voice. He was expressive and certainly didn't just belt his way through. Some of the passage-work was a bit smudgy, but with a voice the size of Neill's then this is inevitable. Whilst O'Neill would not be my ideal in the role (I prefer John Eliot Gardiner's Andrew Kennedy) O'Neill sang with thoughtful credibility and a sense of style. He'd make a very creditable Max on stage and let's hope someone from Covent Garden was listening.

Lars Woldt, though a last minute replacement, has sung Kaspar on stage and this showed. His performance was rooted in dramatic credibility and he had a nice line in snarling without ever going too far over the top. This Kaspar was more than just an evil caricature. It helped that Voldt was singing in his native German, and rather showing up the non-German singers in the cast.

Where Woldt was let down as little was in the Wolf's Glen scene. Despite a number of sound effects, plus the chorus attempting to give the choral parts some sort of extra atmosphere by singing through cardboard megaphones (I kid you not) the result was curiously undramatic and certainly not scary. Davis seemed content to savour the many incidental beauties along the way without ever working them into a dramatic whole. this Wolf's Glen scene was a lovingly crafted artefact which, for all its beauty, was curiously unmoving.

The remaining cast were strong, with Stephan Loges as Ottokar and an off-stage Zamiel; Martin Snell as a solid Kuno; Gidon Saks as a very commanding hermit and Marcus Farnsworth as an engaging Killian. Lucy Hall sang the bridesmaids solo lines as a single solo, so that her character in the programme was labelled Four Bridesmaids.

The chorus sang well for Davis and certainly brought and articulation and liveliness to the choral writing which belied their size. The orchestra, as ever, played wonderfully well for Davis and I have no doubt that the resulting live recording will sound lovely. The concert is repeated tomorrow (Saturday).


  1. You did not mention that in 2002 Glyndebourne gave a series of staged performances of Euryanthe with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It would be wonderful if they were to do Der Freischutz with the OAE.

  2. Of course, that production had slipped my mind; it was a terrific production by Richard Jones though I gather the amazing moving trees had many technical problems.


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