“We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing”, is a sentence in J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello but might as easily be the précis of Axel Köhler’s 2015 Dresden production of Weber’s Der Freischütz (Unitel Classica / C Major DVD). Although Köhler and the costume designer Katharina Weissenborn visually distinguish the hunting society and show its own folklore as somewhat autonomous, there is no doubt that the men who shoot guns for entertainment and the women who cheer them on are a colourful outpost of a military structure that, it is hinted, is in a permanent state of war. The booklet suggests that the production is set in “the aftermath of a war”, and the set indeed shows a drab town in ruins (set designer Arne Walther). However, there are various places in the production that signal a permanent militaristic hierarchy, and violence as a constant undercurrent.
The plot goes like this: the ever reliable marksman Max is suffering an unlucky streak. As fate will have it, this problem appears just before he is to win his bride Agathe—the Prince’s daughter—in a traditional trial shoot-out in which, to become Prince’s son-in-law, he must excel. An emissary from the Satan is hanging out in the same village, and he suggests they meet at the notorious part of the wood called the Wolf’s Glen and together forge some special bullets that never miss. Max eventually follows him there. The day of the trial before the Prince, Max aims at a dove but the bullet downs 1) Agathe, who yells “But Max, I am that dove”, the connection the libretto established via Agathe’s dream of premonition a couple of scenes before, 2) Kaspar, the evil emissary. Agathe, turns out, only fainted, while, in a confirmation of Devil’s untrustworthiness even to his own emissaries, Kaspar’s wound is deadly. But wait, we are nowhere near the end. Max admits to the Prince the little business around the Wolf’s Glen, and the Prince indignantly refuses to give Agathe’s hand. Deus ex machina descends to correct his judgment and approves the union of the two fallible humans who deserve our compassion. He also abolishes the tradition of the trial shootouts. The villagers rejoice. Curtain.
Don’t ask me how any of this makes any fucking sense: it doesn’t. Or rather—since the work keeps being staged and is here to stay—it is up to the director to make sense of it. Many cop out and do a quasi-literal staging. The one production of DF that I’ve seen was by Opera Atelier and thinking about it now makes me cringe in embarrassment as it was all about beautiful costumes, beautiful bodies and beautiful music. Luckily, Köhler’s a serious engagement with the work while also extremely respectful of the original libretto. (The way somebody like, say, Bieito, would not be. He would likely not keep the huntsmen, but conceive them as paramilitary troopers, ignoring the gajillion references to hunting and marksmanship uttered by the characters on stage.)
In the first two acts, the huntsmen are kind of visibly their own society, clad in green and grey reminiscent of military fatigues but they are also of the village. When the Prince arrives, however, he is a distinct higher ranking figure dressed in double-breasted long coat and knee-high boots, as the heads of secret police tend to be represented on film. With such a figure around, the villagers’ words “he will make Max the Grand Master of the Chase” mean a very different thing. “Sir, I am unworthy of your mercy”, something Max says after his confession, and Prince’s response “Hell must be kept separate from Heaven” and “Agathe is too pure for him” too have a whole new meaning. When the chorus of villagers sings the Huntsmen Song for the Prince, the little boys of the village re-enact hunting, while the girls play the hunted-down stags, the adults proudly watching on. The work comes together and slides into coherence.
And while the first two acts read fairly recognizable, and uneventful, it’s in the Act II finale at the Wolf’s Glen that the war breaks onto the stage full blast—as this society’s past, its unacknowledged present and as we’ll see in the final act, its future. It’s a scene masterfully directed as a build-up of suspense: the forging of the seven bullets is in the sky behind Kaspar and Max being played out, with some amazing use of projections and lighting (by Fabio Antoci), as the gradations of warfare, starting with the relatively low-tech hangings to the weapons of mass destruction and aerial fire bombing.
How does Köhler solve the Deus ex machina? Let’s say, honourably. When He appears, He appears as a warrior: long-haired, muddied, perhaps just out of battle. The Prince defers and bows, as he’s obviously before somebody higher up in the same hierarchy he belongs to. Is he a wink in the direction of the mythical hero figures like Hercules or Samson or Siegfried? Possibly. At any rate, He is not outside war, He is very much of it. And while the villages sing the final triumphant song, He rudely demands Agathe’s wedding wreath (she rushes to hand it to him) while we notice the Prince up the staircase, training little boys to shoot. The final sound heard in the production is by a gun shot by a boy aiming at a bird, at Prince’s urging.
Staatskapelle Dresden is in the pit, under Christian Thielemann, and Weber’s music sounds lavish and maturely (not early) Romantic and very cinematic on modern instruments. While I love Weber’s “Kampf und Sieg” on period instruments, his best-known opera sounds much more dramatic with a modern orchestra. The spoken dialogue was slightly adapted (by Werner Hintze), and the transitions between music and speech seem natural. Unlike in Wagner, there are duos, trios and choruses, and it’s quite interesting listening to those in a German opera. Weber segregated the sexes musically too, with women getting the lyrical and occasionally comedic material, while men get the gravity, good and bad. (He musically divides the good and the bad, says the booklet, the diminished cords, including tritones, and the “wan and dark sonorities” going to the reps of the underworld.)
The singers were uniformly solid, the male leads perhaps having a slight edge. Michael König in the title role stays musically mellifluous while dramatically highly wrought and conflicted. Georg Zeppenfeld is sinister and weaselly as the wiry, leather-clad Kaspar, while his baritone voice is even and chocolaty. Adrian Eröd as Ottokar the Prince was equally tone perfect. Agathe (Sara Jakubiak) and Ännchen (Christina Landshamer) were fine but could have had more personality. I know the libretto doesn’t really give them a whole lot of that—one is solemn, the other one light, and that’s sort of it. Much of what they do is waiting.
The limping maid is a great dramatic device, and I’m glad the silent but important role is credited in the booklet: Anna Katharina Schumann.
Video direction by Tiziano Mancini is unobtrusive, with occasionally some unexpected camera positioning from the side of the stage thrown in to keep things interesting.
A Unitel Classica Production with Semperoper Dresden, 2015.