Tuesday 22 October 2019

Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20

Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz; Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, Chiara Skerath, Vladimir Baykov, Cie 14:20, Insula orchestra, Laurence Equilbey; Theatre de Champs Elysees, Paris
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
La magie nouvelle fails to say anything new dramatically, in a musically strong account of Weber's masterpiece

I think that the last time I saw a full staging of Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz was in 1989, with the final revival of Covent Garden's 1977 production originally directed by Götz Friedrich. Since then the opera has been a relative rarity in London, John Eliot Gardiner conducted a semi-staging of Berlioz' arrangement of the work at the Proms, Sir Colin Davis (who conducted both the 1982 and the 1989 revivals of the Covent Garden production) conducted it at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra, and David Roblou and Midsummer Opera have performed it. I am not sure whether it has received a fully professional staging in the UK since that 1989 Covent Garden version.

In concert, companies tend to replace the spoken dialogue with narration. And that perhaps provides the hint for the work being relatively ignored in the UK. Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind's Der Freischütz, which premiered in Berlin in 1821, is a singspiel in the tradition of those by Mozart. It is not a comic piece, and examines themes which were common in German Romanticism of the 1820s, folk traditions, the supernatural, the Gothic and the gruesome. Themes that would be mined and transformed by Richard Wagner in his operas.

So it was something of a surprise to find a new production of Weber's Der Freischütz at Paris' Theatre des Champs Elysees, as a collaboration between two French organisations, conductor Laurence Equilbey's Insula orchestra and the theatre company Compagnie 14:20. The cast featured Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max [last seen in Ivo van Hove's new Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera's Palais Garnier in July 2019, see my review], Johanni van Oostrum as Agathe, Chiara Skerath as Ännchen [see my interview with Chiara], and Vladimir Baykov as Kaspar. The choir was Accentus. From the Compagnie 14:20, Raphael Navarro and Clément Debailleul were responsible for direction and for the magic conception, and Valentine Losseau for the dramaturgy. Debailleul also designed the set and was responsible for the videos. The choreography was by Siegrid Petit-Imbert. It was a co-production with Theatre de Caen (where it has already appeared), Theatre des Champs Elysees Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg, opera de Rouen Normandie and Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele.

Richard Wagner's influence on German music has meant that we have tended to see Weber's operas through the lens of Wagner's. In the role of Max, I have seen great Wagnerians Rene Kollo and Alberto Remedios, and in the role of Agathe, Christine Brewer. Using period instruments has meant that Laurence Equilbey and Insula provided lighter, more transparent sound, yet still vibrant and characterful, and this enabled the casting of lyric voices. Stanislas de Barbeyrac, who sang Max in Paris, is a notable Tamino.

Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
The version used was credited to the dramaturgy of Valentine Losseau of Compagnie 14:20, and I have no doubt that the dialogue was edited, but at least there was dialogue and it was important to the drama. The delivery was highly creditable, and was a notable plus for this international cast (a French Max, a South African Agathe, A Swiss-Belgian Ännchen, a Russian Kasper). So musically and textually this was an evening of high quality and fidelity to Weber and Kind's intentions.

Visually and dramaturgically, the evening owed everything to the ethos of Compaganie 14:20. Consisting of Clemen Debauilleu, Raphael Navarro and Valentine Losseau the company specialises in magie nouvelle - the new magic [see the interview with the three in Circus News]. A movement which places the disequilibrium of the senses on the overturning of reality at the centre of its artistic endeavours.
This seems an admirable fit with an opera which is littered with supernatural events and whose second act culminates in the Wolf's Glen Scene where Kasper (Vladimir Baykov) and Max (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) raise the spirit of Samiel (Clément Dazin, dancer, and Christian Immler, voice) and forge the magic bullets.

Unfortunately, Debailleul, Navarro and Losseau did not seem to have engaged with the central themes of the opera. There were plenty of dazzling stage effects and some fascinating dramaturgical ideas, but we had little sense of the struggle between Good and Evil, little idea of the threat of the Supernatural that was as seen as ever present by the villagers, and little Gothic Romanticism.

Samiel, the Dark Huntsman, was depicted by dancer Clément Dazin, as a black-clad, personable looking young man, something of an anarchic street kd, always juggling luminous balls, these floating balls were a theme running through the opera, identified with the seven magic bullets. During the Wolf's Glen Scene, Samiel was voiced thrillingly by Christian Immler but this more dramatic conception was not followed through in the rest of the opera. Similarly, there was little sense of the Hermit (also Immler) as a force for good, the villagers say he is but we never saw an example of it.

More importantly, whilst the direction of the singers was adequate, the staging concept rather limited their range of action and often confined them down-stage. What we got felt like a semi-staging whilst the magic happened behind the singers. It was a good idea to have Clément Dazin's Samiel dancing whilst Stanislas de Barbeyrac's Max sang his big Act One arias, but the two never interacted and Dazin's dancing seemed more decoration than commentary.

I came away with the feeling that fundamentally Debailleul, Navarro and Losseau did not quite trust the music and felt that every scene needed a visual accompaniement. It might ahve seemed a good idea to have Samiel's seven illuminated balls hovering in the background of Agathe's second aria, but after the first few moments they were more distracting than dramatically effective.

In the opening scene of Act Two, old Kuno's portrait was giant size with a video projection of Kuno which distractingly reacted to Agathe and Ännchen's dialogue. But there were some imaginative touches too, I liked the idea of the bridesmaids being less than perfect, tormenting Agathe as they dressed her.

The result as a production which was visually restless with rather too many scenes played out in front of the drop curtain with projections of Debailleul's videos. The biggest failure was the Wolf's Glen scene. Musically this astonishing scene is a dramatic whole which Weber carefully constructed, combining orchestral tone-painting, chorus, recitative and aria, with a slow build up to the casting of the bullets as highly dramatic melodrama. Here the scene was rendered as a sequence of short scenes, each effective in its own right but failing to build into a complex whole and failing to establish a visual counterpart to Christian Immler's terrifying (and over amplified) enunciation of Samiel's responses to Kaspar's (Vladimir Baykov) invocations.

The two characters who developed the strongest presence were Stanislas de Barbeyrac's troubled Max and Chiara Skerath's delightful Ännchen. From the outset, de Barbeyrac made Max troubled and the opening scene was presented with the chorus off stage, not an village celebration but mocking voices in Max's head. De Barbeyrac was a fine lyric Max, singing with a nice clean line but with enough heft for the more dramatic elements in the score. He succeeded in capturing our attention and imagination, even in his Act One aria with Dazin as distraction. This was an account of the role I would love to hear more of, combining musicality with Max's naivety and troubled nature.

Agathe remains a problem in this opera, at best passively anxious, at worst a real drip. Johanni van Oostrum did her best and 'Leise, leise' was wonderfully engaging, lyrical drama with a feeling for Agathe's troubled psyche And her second aria was similarly strong. But Agathe never does anything other than worry.

Ännchen is the more balanced of the two girls, down to earth and practical. Chiara Skerath combined a lively, wry sense of humour with a feeling for the drama, so she was far more than the token comic soubrette. Her Act Two aria was full of charm, and some delightful story-telling, despite the distraction of the wooing she describes being acted out.

Vladimir Baykov made a robust Kaspar, not so much evil as a stupid tool, though I thought that he could have brought more desperation to the character. He is after all facing eternal damnation. Baykov's way round Weber's music was similarly robust, but quite effective. The remaining roles are all relatively small. Thorsten Gümbel as Kuno was severe yet benign, and Gümbel made the most of his Act One narration. Christian Immler was underused as the Hermit and the voice of Samiel. His Hermit was a kindly but hardly a commanding presence. Daniel Schumtzhard's Otokar was just but very severe, whilst Anas Seguin made a lively Kilian.

The chorus was in good form, combining power and accuracy. The direction favoured using them en bloc, rather than creating a feeling of the community in which Max, Agathe and Ännchen lived. And too often, the magic effects required the chorus to be too far up stage. During the hunting chorus this had a disastrous effect on ensemble with the orchestral horns.

Insula orchestra was in fine form, and Laurence Equilbey drew a musically strong performance from them. Weber's music certainly responds well to period instruments and Historically Informed Performance style, revealing details which can get obscured in the larger scale modern instrument versions. Equilbey clearly understands the opera, and it was a shame that the directing team did not seem to have the same trust and understanding of the work.

Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Laurence Equilbey - musical direction
Clément Debailleul & Raphaël Navarro (Cie 14:20) - staging
Valentine Losseau (Cie 14:20) - dramaturgy
Clément Debailleul - artistic coordination, design and video
Aragorn Boulanger - choreography
Siegrid Petit-Imbert - costumes
Elsa Revol - lights

Stanislas de Barbeyrac - Max
Johanni Van Oostrum - Agathe
Chiara Skerath - Ännchen
Vladimir Baykov - Kaspar
Christian Immler - Hermit
Thorsten Grümbel - Kuno
Daniel Schmutzhard - Ottokar
Anas Séguin - Kilian
Clément Dazin - Samiel

Insula orchestra
accentus direction Frank Markowitsch

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