Der Freischütz – Opera in three acts by to a libretto by Friedrich Kind [sung in German with English surtitles; English narration by Amanda Holden]
Max – Simon O’Neill
Kaspar – Lars Woldt
Agathe – Christine Brewer
Ännchen – Sally Matthews
Ottokar / Zamiel – Stephan Loges
Kuno – Martin Snell
Kilian – Marcus Farnsworth
A Hermit – Gidon Saks
Bridesmaids – Lucy Hall
Malcolm Sinclair (narrator)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 19 April, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
As the first real embodiment of musical Romanticism, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz maintains a key place in operatic literature. Not an unequivocal one, though, as – at least outside of German-speaking countries – its place in the repertoire has been erratic; witness the dearth of new productions in London alone this past quarter-century. Fortunately, it is eminently well-suited to the kind of concert performance that the London Symphony Orchestra has undertaken so successfully over recent seasons – not least with Sir Colin Davis, who one suspects would rather direct a ‘no frills’ presentation such as this than a specious conceptual production imposed from the outside.
With its engaging if often implausible narrative of marksmen, supernatural intervention and moral failing, all set within the rural confines of seventeenth-century Bohemia, this is an opera which blazed its trail not least through appealing to the expectations of its audience and in so doing afforded a secure context for whatever deviation from reality it embodies. Such pitfalls as there are would not have appeared so at the time – namely the often-lengthy spans of spoken dialogue that connect the musical items and which, even when replaced by a relatively concise narration as here, tend to impede its continuity and so undermine its dramatic momentum.
Not that Amanda Holden’s text or Malcolm Sinclair’s reciting of it were inappropriate, setting the scene in a brisk yet not peremptory fashion, but it might prove irksome on repetition and one hopes that, for a scheduled LSO Live release, it will be omitted or at least separately tracked. A notable by-product, though, was the audience’s attention between music and speech as it refrained from the unnecessary applause likely to emerge at primary dramatic junctures. A tribute, no doubt, to the intrinsic as well as the innovative qualities of Weber’s music (quite where would Berlioz and Wagner have been without it?), but also to those of the present performance.
Simon O’Neill brought warmth and eloquence to Max, the desertion of whose shooting skills he belatedly links to matters beyond his control and whose erring towards the forces of darkness can be easily explained and almost as easily forgiven. Lars Woldt (replacing Falk Struckmann) was a vengeful Kaspar, ideally complementing Stephan Loges as Zamiel – the ‘dark hunter’ whose sinister presence informs much of the first two acts. As Agathe, Christine Brewer recovered from initial unsteadiness to give a typically burnished performance, but it was Sally Matthews who stole the show with an Ännchen of irresistible poise.
Martin Snell brought authority without parody to that of Kuno – which latter quality was duly pointed up by Marcus Farnsworth as Kilian. Lucy Hall made a piquant showing as the Bridesmaids, while Gidon Saks made a typically implacable impression as the Hermit whose timely intervention turns the tide in the lovers’ favour. The London Symphony Chorus sang with notable verve – not least those choruses for bridesmaids and huntsmen that set the scene for the denouement, while the LSO lacked nothing in commitment: mention must be made of Rebecca Gilliver and Edward Vanderspar for their obbligato contributions to Agathe’s and Ännchen’s arias in Act Three.
Otherwise, this was Colin Davis’s performance (indeed, it was doubtless his prompting that led to its taking place) – his belief in and affection for this music evident from the outset of a spacious yet dramatic account of the Overture. In particular, the famous ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene at the close of Act Two was not lacking in the dynamic or evocative qualities that impressed and often overwhelmed listeners for several decades after the opera’s premiere. That Der Freischütz still casts a considerable spell in this appreciably more cynical and sceptical age testifies to its musical and theatrical qualities, as also to a fine and perceptive account as this one.