Taking the sort of bold leap seldom, if ever, seen from the national company in recent years, Melbourne Opera proves they have the resources, talent and audience support to successfully stage rarely seen German opera Der Freischütz. This boldness has been rewarded with a thrilling performance of sterling musicality that gives the appreciative audience plenty to enjoy. Upon hearing the melodious, stirring overture, it is clear that Der Freischütz contains wonderful, engaging music. Sung in English, with English dialogue, the characters and storyline are crystal clear, meaning that lack of audience familiarity is no impediment to easy accessibility of the piece.
1821 opera Der Freischütz, with music by Carl Maria von Weber and libretto by Friedrich Kind, was a great success in its day, inspiring, amongst others, young Richard Wagner. An intriguing blend of heightened paranormal elements, sweeping romance and folksy charm, the story focuses on Max, the Marksman, who must win a shooting contest to win the hand of fair Agathe. In frustration at his poor form, Max accepts magic bullets from the sinister Caspar, who is looking for a soul to substitute for his own, which he has sold to the devil, Samiel.
Director Suzanne Chaundy plays the supernatural melodrama straight, wisely avoiding a lighter, tongue-in-cheek touch, which would have completely undermined the drama. Chaundy’s ingenious concept for the setting updates the action from the mid-1600s of the Thirty Years’ War to the time of World War I, when the power of tradition and superstition are still prevalent in small town life, and when the modernist movement of Expressionism was beginning.
Set designer Christina Logan-Bell and costume designer Daniel Harvey have clearly worked together closely with Chaundy to create a unified vision of shadowy terror. Logan-Bell’s designs contrast churning spirals and sharp peaks, with the black, white and grey palette completely reflected in Harvey’s costumes. Set construction, by Greg Carroll, is impressively solid. The costumes, although looking very effective as a whole, suffer somewhat from budget constraints, meaning that there is a range of styles and periods on show (for example, the three bridesmaids do not match each other). Inserting interval halfway through act two, the second part opens with the opera’s iconic scene of dread: the casting of the magic bullets amidst the swirling spirits of Wolf’s Glen. This is where video artist Zoe Scoglio’s projections come to the fore, as Max is visited by the spirit of his mother and by an apparition of Agathe, and Samiel is seen as a grasping, menacing shadow. Scott Allan’s excellent lighting adds significantly to the sinister tone of this scene. Conductor David Kram elicits first-rate, spirited playing from Melbourne Opera Orchestra, strongly underpinning the quality of the evening. The presence of four French horns is a luxury, which is particularly appreciated in the overture and in the Wolf’s Glen scene.
Chorus preparation, by Raymond Lawrence, is perhaps the best heard to date, with a rich, harmonious sound pouring forth the stage. The Melbourne Opera Chorus also neatly performs Miki Brotzler’s choreography, with the male chorus particularly impressing with their sharp, uniform moves in the famous “Hunter’s Chorus.”
Tenor Jason Wasley is a noble, sympathetic Max, expressing the character’s emotional turmoil is a nicely underplayed performance. In excellent voice, Wasley sings the role with flair, scoring particularly well melancholic arias such as the gorgeous “Through woods and fields” of act one. Likewise, Sally Wilson gives a tender, endearing portrayal of Agathe, her serene beauty creating a charming stage presence. Wilson sings with heart rending sweetness, providing lovely moments such as act two’s “Low, low sacred words” and act three’s prayer “Though clouds obscure, still shines the sun in radiant sky.” As far as love stories go, the two leads spend little stage time together, not even sharing a scene until halfway through. Wasley and Wilson successfully portray the desire and longing that establishes and maintains the central romance of Max and Agathe. Experienced bass Steven Gallop conveys a malevolent presence as the driven Caspar, shading the role with the darkest aspects of his vocal and facial expression.
As Agathe’s cousin Ännchen, Andrea Creighton is an absolute delight, raising the comic energy of the show while still respecting the natural performance style of the cast. Her sparkling rendition of “My deceased cousin had a dream” provides some much needed levity as the dramatic story nears it conclusion.
Baritone Michael Lampard practically steals the show before it has scarcely begun, energetically delivering Kilian’s infectious mocking song “Let him gaze on me as king.” Further solid support comes from Manfred Pohlenz as Cuno, head forester and Agathe’s father, Adrian McEniery as Prince Ottokar and Roger Howell as the all-important Hermit, whose sage advice drives the happy ending. Opera lovers, particularly those tired of endless re-runs of chocolate box favourites, are strongly encouraged to grasp this opportunity to experience Der Freischütz.
Der Freischütz plays again at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne on 5 February and 14 February 2015, and plays Alexander Theatre, Monash University on 13 March 2015.
Melbourne Opera have listed the following operas for their 2015 season:
June: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
September: Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
October: Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson