Hats off to Melbourne Opera! The choice of Der Freischutz to launch their 2015 season was a happy one on several counts. Following successful performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Rienzi, a link has been forged between these two by another masterpiece from the German operatic repertoire. Beethoven took opera to new places after Mozart’s ground-breaking Magic Flute and Wagner was inspired by Weber’s Der Freischutz to explore myth and legend in a new musical imagining, complete with leitmotifs and an innovative use of orchestral forces.
Although parts of Weber’s opera are familiar, most notably the “Huntsmen’s Chorus”, the opera as a whole has, unaccountably, been comparatively neglected outside of Germany in recent times. It has not been performed in Melbourne for nearly fifty years and even then it was by the Victorian Opera Company rather than by our national opera company. Here is an opera with an arresting good-versus-evil story line, terrific arias and choruses and wonderfully melodic writing for the orchestra that is full of emotion and surprise. Some commentators have cited a nationalistic flavour as being a deterrent, but the baggage that attends Wagner’s works has not stopped audiences from embracing them.
Suzanne Chaundy’s production immediately dispels any misgivings that this would be some quaint throwback of the chocolate box lid variety – although it is arguable that the quality of Weber’s score could withstand this treatment even nowadays. Drawing upon elements of early 20th century German Expressionism, she has created a world that has dramatic resonance and uses the resources of Melbourne Opera to maximum effect. The small stage of the Athenaeum Theatre poses a challenge for any director, particularly when there is a sizeable chorus involved (in this case about forty members) plus soloists.
In collaboration with set designer, Christina Logan-Bell, video artist Zoe Scoglio and lighting designer Scott Allan, Chaundy has used stylized, grey-scale images to conjure up a world of psychological Angst. The stage is uncluttered without conveying any sense of things being done on the cheap. In particular, the drama of the Wolf’s Glen, where the magic silver bullets are cast, was a fantastic (in both senses of the word) kaleidoscope of colour and a tribute to the excellence of Zoe Scoglio’s video skills. The decision to realise the satanic figure of Samiel as an amplified voice and a series of menacing shadows worked superbly well. Chaundy’s referencing of the world of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was remarkably apt.
As the “free shooter”, Max, Jason Wasley complements his roles of Florestan and Rienzi. Again, a weightier almost Heldentenor sound is required and Wasley’s appealing vocal qualities handled the musical demands very well. He was comfortable within the whole range and sang strongly throughout. Although Max is the “hero”, he spends most of the opera being anything but. His greatest virtue is his devotion to his intended bride, Agathe. Much of the time he is a petulant loser of the shooting contest and a self-confessed weakling as he succumbs to the temptation of cheating his way into shooting straight and winning his place in society and Agathe’s hand or, as Chaundy suggests, overcoming his impotence on the eve of his wedding. Wasley projects Max’s anguish forcefully in his Act 1 aria and gives his final admission of guilt an engaging pathos.
Apart from the rollicking peasant tunes, Agathe’s main aria Leise, leise (“Gently stealing”) is the most familiar excerpt from the opera. It is also one of the most magical pieces of music in the operatic repertoire. Mezzo-soprano Sally Wilson is a very accomplished singer with a warm voice and a controlled technique. Agathe is usually sung by a lyric soprano, but Wilson in fact was at her best in the upper reaches with a lovely full tone and no sense of strain even in her soft singing. Her soft, sustained high notes as she prepared for her wedding were exceptionally lovely. Occasionally her acting was somewhat overdrawn, but she has a physical beauty that made her a convincing object of Max’s passion.
Andrea Creighton was a vivacious foil to Wilson’s Agathe in the soubrette role of Annchen. Possessing a clear soprano with a smooth upper extension, she provided a suitable contrast in terms of vocal quality and personality.
Minor roles were performed commendably. Michael Lampard had the job of setting the scene as the victorious marksman, Kilian. Vocally secure, he was able to capture the balance between youthful good cheer and victorious jubilation as he and the chorus mocked Max for his failure to hit any targets. Manfred Pohlenz as Cuno, as Chief Forrester and father of Agathe, and Adrian McEniery as Prince Ottakar sang strongly. Roger Howell’s fine voice is always a pleasure to hear, although his lower notes tended to be lost beneath the enthusiasm of the orchestra. He gave suitable gravitas to the role of the hermit who protects Agathe and Max from Casper’s machinations.
Perhaps the star of the evening was Steven Gallop as the villain of the piece, Caspar, who seduces Max into becoming complicit in the forging of the magic bullets and a substitute sacrifice to Samiel. There is a substantial amount of spoken dialogue in the opera – a good reason for performing it in English. All of the singers made a good fist of this, but none more so than Gallop. He also made the sung text easier to follow than some of the other singers. An enthusiastic audience response of boos and cheers at curtain call made it clear that his exceptionally powerful singing and acting were much appreciated. Vocally and theatrically, Gallop would have been an asset to any company in this role.
Despite the occasional lack of total unanimity, commitment and enjoyment were a prominent component of the chorus work. Melbourne Opera’s soprano line has been particularly strong in the past and lived up to expectation; the mocking chorus near the beginning of the opera was spot on. The men rose to the occasion by giving a lusty account of their choruses. Chaundy even managed to elicit some subtlety in the response of chorus members to unfolding events.
The Huntsmen’s Chorus is almost synonymous with Der Freischutz and horns are an important integral part of Weber’s instrumentation throughout the opera. Happily, the horns were among the highlights of the evening. Apart from a few untidy moments, the orchestra as a whole gave a fairly solid account of Weber’s score. Although not a large band, there was enough solid orchestral sound at key points to underpin crucial dramatic moments. In general, David Kram was sensitive to the needs of the singers and keen to elicit as much drama as possible from his players.
This production might not have hit the centre of the bull’s-eye as yet, but it is pretty close. Chaundy’s conception is exceptionally effective and the performances are strong. Patrons will be left with an admiration for Weber’s achievement and gratitude that Melbourne Opera has had the vision and expertise to resurrect this work so convincingly. I have no doubt that there will be members of the audience going back for a second helping – myself included.
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of Melbourne Opera’s performance of Der Freischutz on January 31, at the Athenaeum Theatre.
The picture is by Jodie Hutchinson.