Masterpieces in Melbourne

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Published: 30th January, 2015

Melbourne audiences are being treated to two operatic masterpieces in the first months of 2015. Weber’s rarely performed work Der Freischutz (loosely translated as “The Marksman”), not seen in Melbourne since 1969, is being presented by Melbourne Opera at the Athenaeum Theatre opening on January 31. In February, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) will be performed by Victorian Opera at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre.

It is a perfect combination of works for anyone interested in an important segue in operatic history. Weber not only established German Romantic opera but his music is widely known to have heavily informed and influenced Wagner’s output. Weber exploited German folk elements, borrowed from Germanic superstitions and traditions and infused his few works with a nationalistic love of German landscapes. He anticipated the concept of Wagner’s Leit-motif and used the orchestra in a thematic way that helps realise and make the story come to life.

Tenor Jason Wasley is tackling the demanding role of Max which he likens to the later Heldentenor roles found in Wagner and which requires singing “at the extremities of the tenor range with solid projection,” he says.

Wasley comments that Weber “depicts each character thoughtfully, sets the emotional atmosphere and links all elements of the story together.” He finds the orchestration often “demonstrates the traditional roles of each instrument, such as the use of French horns for the hunting chorus (traditionally played on horns whilst on horseback) or the use of strings for the tavern waltz.”

Indeed the overture, often performed in its own right as a concert piece, has been hailed as a masterpiece of instrumentation which provides listeners with leading themes from the entire work. The three-act opera with a text by Friedrich Kind tells the story of a marksman who makes a pact with the dark side to win a contest and gain the hand of his beloved.

Director Suzanne Chaundy explains that she wanted to bring the very Germanic world of Der Freischutz into the 20th Century to give a contemporary audience a greater connection with the story. “That led to an investigation of early 20th Century artistic movements and Expressionism was a clear match”, the dierctor says. “The opera contains a large amount of fantasy, horror and magic and I felt this sat well within the German Expressionist films of the 1920’s. The design team is creating a grey scale world that only turns to vivid colour when magic occurs.

“We are dressing the entire cast in grey scale and the scenery is based on the type of shards, shadows, angles and swirls you would see in something like The Cabinet of Caligari or the shadows of Nosferatu. The appearance of the Demon Hunter Zamiel for instance is suggested by shadow rather than an actual figure onstage.”

New Zealand soprano Andrea Creighton who is performing the practical, high-spirited Zwischenfach role of Annchen comments that it is wonderful to be involved in a production where both the director and the designer (Christina Logan-Bell) have such a focused vision.

“We have had great fun experimenting with acting styles, referencing 1920’s German silent movies for example, but ultimately we have had to find the right balance,” says Creighton.  Wasley notes “The design of the set and the use of projections bring together the supernatural themes that have proved difficult to realize in more traditional productions”.

Both director and singers agree that singing the work in English has its own challenges, but hope that this will make the work more accessible, especially with regard to the “singspiel” dialogue. Chaundy says, “For the purposes of immediacy it works better for us in English, as this style of work was written to be a form of popular entertainment.”

Local audiences may not be so familiar with this kind of operatic work, but there is currently a thirst (and not just in Melbourne!), for greater breadth of operatic performance. Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle in 2013 began what could be seen as a renewed interest in German opera in Australia; however it is the local companies who are bravely offering audiences new theatrical experiences. These also provide singers with rare and valuable opportunities to learn and discover some of operatic history’s most important music.

“We are marketing this piece for what it is,” says the director of Der Freischutz ; “a rarely seen masterpiece that has never been done like this in Melbourne before.”

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Melbourne Opera presents Der Freischutz at the Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne:

Saturday January 31, 7.30pm (opening night)

Thursday February 5,  7.30pm

Saturday February 14, 2pm (matinee)

Book on 9650 1500 or Ticketek 13 28 49

and at Alexander Theatre, Monash University, Clayton

Friday March 13, 8pm

The image was supplied by Melbourne Opera