Opera Atelier: Weber’s Der Freischütz Back

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (‘The Freeshooter’) is the most influential of early Romantic operas. First performed in Berlin’s Schauspielhaus in 1821, it took Germany and then Europe by storm, with international audiences drawn not just by Weber’s music but also by the Faustian drama of Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto, which took its story from German folklore, and the spectacular Gothic staging of the dreaded Wolf’s Glen.

Set in the Bohemian forest, the opera’s protagonist is Max, a sharpshooter on the cusp of marrying his beloved Agathe and of succeeding her father as head forester. All that stands between him and this double prize is a shooting trial. This, of course, should be a proverbial walk in the park for our young hero, were it not for a last minute loss of nerve. At the start of Act 1 – the eve of the trial – Max is publicly humiliated at a local shooting contest when he loses to a lower-class competitor; it seems he hasn’t been hitting the target for weeks.

In the depths of despair, and believing himself forsaken by heaven, Max is ensnared by the scheming Caspar, who successfully tempts him to turn to the occult for aid, and promises to give Max seven magic bullets (that never fail to hit their mark) if he will meet him at midnight in the allegedly cursed Wolf’s Glen. At the climax of the second act, and in the sensational set-piece that secured the opera such enduring success, the desperate Max descends into Wolf’s Glen to meet Caspar, ignoring the horrific visions of his dead mother and Agathe which portend trouble.

Unbeknownst to the hero, Caspar has already conjured the demon huntsman Samiel, and plans to defer his impending damnation by offering Max as a victim to Samiel in place of himself, suggesting also that bullet number seven should be directed at Agathe. After Max’s arrival the pair perform the black magic necessary to cast the seven bullets, doing so in the company of spirits and a succession of dire supernatural manifestations.

Meanwhile, safely ensconced at her father’s house, Agathe becomes increasingly anxious as she faces a series of ill omens: a local hermit has warned her of some impending menace; an ancestral portrait has fallen from the wall; then in a nightmare she has dreamed that she is a white dove shot down by her beloved; and finally, on the wedding morning itself, she is mistakenly delivered a funeral wreath rather than a bridal wreath.

Such portents seem to come to fruition at the end of the third and final act. Max arrives at the shooting trial having wasted all but the last of his seven magic bullets. In the presence of Prince Ottokar, Max is directed to fire at a white dove but to his horror, and the alarm of the crowd, he seemingly hits Agathe instead, who drops to the ground. She is, however, unhurt, and it is in fact Caspar who has been mortally wounded – and damned. Max then makes a full confession, and the Prince proclaims his banishment, only for the Hermit to enter, as deus ex machina, and successfully appeal for clemency: Max is given a year’s probation, after which he can marry Agathe. With this happy resolution, the opera closes with a hymn praising God’s mercy.

Of course, all of this really does beg to be read in Freudian terms: the soon-to-be husband is so overwhelmed by the anxiety of replacing/becoming her father that he can no longer shoot straight; and the soon-to-be wife is terrified by dreams in which her lover’s sexual desire – sorry, his skill with a gun – is a dangerous force that threatens her destruction. And Marshall Pynkoski, the director of this production, is certainly alert to this psychoanalytic allegory, for his Der Freischütz fully embraces the sexual overtones of the libretto.

Co-founded by Pynkoski, Opera Atelier have been producing period stagings of Baroque opera for over twenty years, and in his programme notes Pynkoski talks up the risk the company are taking by venturing beyond the Baroque and into the Romantic. In fact, Der Freischütz is a perfect vehicle for OA, who are well known for their lavish production aesthetic, and it is a delight to experience their staging of Weber’s and Kind’s camp Gothic extravaganza.

The opera’s most famous scene, in Wolf’s Glen, is here a tangle of naked flesh, as Curtis Sullivan’s nude beefcake Samiel twice rises through the stage trapdoor, and seemingly naked dancers rush and writhe around Max and Caspar as they perform their dark rites. What renders this fleshiness aesthetically coherent, and theatrically powerful, is the phantasmagoria that the show’s designer, Gerard Gauci, has introduced into the scene at its climax: as the men cast the charmed bullets, the large moon at the back of the stage becomes the screen for a quickfire sequence of moving projections of contorted female nudes from various Romantic-era paintings. As this phantasmagoria culminates with the slowly growing head of the blank-eyed horse from Fuseli’s Nightmare (1781), the audience is left in no doubt that the demonic force that the hero is confronting in Wolf’s Glen is really his own sexual desire.

Moving from bodies to voices, the singers were in general terrific. Kresimir Spicer’s Max really does seem to go through the gamut of emotions, and Meghan Lindsay’s Agathe is suitably gloomy. But the show is stolen by the vocal performance of Carla Huhtanen, in the role of Agathe’s fun-loving cousin, Aanchen. And it was Huhtanen who deservedly received the biggest cheer at the bow.