Opera Atelier’s new production of Der Freischütz

Opera Atelier’s new production of Der Freischütz

Der Freischütz (The Marksman) by Carl Maria von Weber (1821), libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind. Conductor David Fallis, director Marshall Pynkoski, choreography Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Principals are Krešimir Špicer (Max), Meghan Lindsay (Agathe), Vasil Garvanliev (Kaspar), Carla Huhtanen (Äanchen). Full cast and creative, plus dates and tickets here.

One of the earliest of the German Romantic operas, The Marksman is today rarely performed outside Germany, and after seeing it revived in the new OA production, I have some idea why.

Its first two acts chug along fine, but the third act’s inadvertently funny missed bullet, followed by the death of the villain, followed by the chorus to the Heavens, make the entire work a thoroughly alien type of soap opera. Unless, that is, it is radically reimagined in a staging by a brave director – though I’m not sure that would help either. (There are a few DVD recordings available: one from ’68, one more recent by Ruth Berghaus, from Hamburg in contemporary clothes this one, and one or two others). But Opera Atelier, as we know, is not the business of asking the question “What does this work tell us about our own time.” Pynkoski remains faithful to the idea of the ‘original intent of the composer’ and to employing the staging devices available at the time of the creation (or his stylization of the same). Lajeunesse Zingg continues to research and employ period choreography; it’s really interesting to read her program notes each time, but the dancing to a non-expert eye looks exactly the same from one OA production to another. Many other aesthetic choices keep recurring from production to production: beefcake in every scene, gestural  (non)acting, the cut of women’s costumes, the tights and the codpieces in male costumes, the painted ‘period’ set. The OA also always works with the same conductor. Their donors apparently like this state of the affairs, and so do their subscribers, so my outsider dissent doesn’t really matter all that much.

The first two acts before the intermission are actually solid – the liveliest part of the production, with fewer of the usual OA mannerisms, and some elements of the unexpected. The warm-timbred tenor Krešimir Špicer is in his usual fine vocal form and he is even allowed to act a little beyond the gesturalism as the disconsolate Max who keeps losing at target practice. He is soon to take part in the marksmanship competition in order to win the hand of the beloved Agathe, and worried that the bad luck will continue, falls under the influence of a shady character Kaspar (baritone Vasil Garvanliev) who promises to supply him with infallible bullets, provided he pays in kind. Macedonian bari Garvanliev has an incredibly rich, resonant and (when called for) beautiful voice. His voice was one of the best things of the entire production. His acting – Pynkoski, I’m blaming you – was one of the worst. Kaspar, rather than being any shade of ominous, is campy to the point of hysteria, and completely undermines the seriousness of the dark side in this tale of darkness vs. light. Kaspar, in the tale, has known and traded with the Devil, and is running out of time, which is why he concocts this scheme with Max. Kaspar, in the OA production, is Jack from Will and Grace.

Both men have plenty of chance to shine vocally, the tenor getting a sad aria, the bari singing an incantation song and the closing aria “Silence, let no one warn him” (Garvanliev in full splendor, if you can ignore the hand-clasp, hand-to-the-sky gesturing). There is also a chorus of villagers, a trio, dance numbers of course, and much else, including the on-stage violin solo by Aisslinn Nosky.

Act 2 opens in women’s quarters, with Äanchen (Carla Huhtanen) leading the happenings with great comic flourish. She is the more practical and infinitely funnier – also a lighter soprano — ladyfriend to Meghan Lindsay’s Agathe. The two women are finely cast, and Lindsay’s voice has a very different, somewhat metallic colour, certainly appealing and certainly heavier in capacity, as her character is darker. The banter from Äanchen about boys she is attracted to could have been written today. Her comic mode continues even after Max arrives for a rendez-vous with Agatha.

After a change of scene, we are at the Wolf’s Glen, where Kaspar and Max are supposed to meet Kaspar’s underworld connection, actually Satan himself, here under the name of Samiel. Max has visions that prevent him coming down to join Kaspar. As Gerard Gauci explains in his Set Designer Notes, for these he used the period theatrical device called Fantascope, which projects images into walls and screens. The images projected do produce some creepiness, although the same and more would have been achieved with a regular overhead projector à la Daniel Barrow. The dancers who come in with the long waves of cloth and the choreography distract from the dread. The casting of the bullets, however, works really well: a flame consisting of human of hands comes out from under the stage and precisely to the music, each time one of the hand remains and gives the ring to Kaspar.

The less said about the naked Beefcake Satan (admirably stoic Curtis Sullivan), the better.

Intermission follows, and after it, we are back at Agathe’s room, where she is telling Äanchen about a nightmare she had. Von Weber reduced orchestration to strings here, and the setting becomes very intimate. The star of the much of this part of opera is the cello in the pit, which was the primary mover and colour-provider for most of what was happening. (Violas? Sounded like one cello to me, but I’d have to check the score to be sure.) Back up on the stage, it seems that Pynkoski doesn’t like the idea of leaving the two women without male presence for a minute, so we get the dancer/butler who watches over the two friends in silence, just like in the act 2.

It’s downhill from there. The competition takes place, Max misses and the bullet ends up going in the direction of the falling Agathe. Everybody weeps and mourns gesturally, until Agathe comes to, and the crowd parts to reveal the wounded Kaspar, whose buddy Samiel finally gets his payback. All is revealed and Max’s lack of faith and constancy publicly excoriated until a Wise Hermit (a really good bass, Gustav Andreassen) emerges from the crowd to remind them that clemency is among the highest virtues, that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, and so on. Let us all praise the Heavens Above, that are clement to us, he sings, and everybody points to the sky and sings. Agathe’s father promises to end the shootouts as a practice of testing valour. There is a nice sextet at the end, but it is drowned in the glaring ultra-conservative ideology of the scene.

Those who are already OA devotees will like this production as something a little bit different but safely within the permanently preset parameters of the OA aesthetic. Others can enjoy the two first acts as competently done escapism, and scratch their heads over the rest, and then the nature of this work, and how it could be credibly staged today.

3 thoughts on “Opera Atelier’s new production of Der Freischütz

  1. It’s always exciting to hear of such good voices, but… alas for the miring in stock gestures. I love the orchestral sound of Der Freischuetz (although perhaps I’m used to an “incorrect” late Romantic orchestra? not sure) and so would happily hear more of it, but perhaps Der Vampyr (Marschner) is better suited to ambitious directorial projects. Still: is it possible that so much social and supernatural anxiety could NOT be turned to thought-provoking account?

    1. Exactly! I wish OA realized that they have to evolve and start trying out different things. They could certainly keep Tafelmusik as their period orchestra, but some fresh air in directing is BADLY needed, and why not try a guest conductor here and there? They’ve been doing essentially the same production for all these years. Did you see their Persée on DVD? All of their productions are like that.

      There’s no shame in saying, with as much or as little bluntness as they want, Listen, we’ve been interested in this, we were first in this part of the world to do it, and we explored the gestural acting and period staging for years. We know these works don’t have only archaeological value. We know they speak to us today. So our stagings will reflect that.

      Will they lose some donors who are in it for beautiful costumes and buff bodies? Possibly. But with the newly gained freedom in staging and conceptualizing, they can drop the lush costumes and Elgin and huge ballet compagnie, and actually *have something to say*.

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