BBC Prom 73: Der Freisch¸tz

It seems that Hector Berlioz was compelled in this endeavour
by a memory of a 1824 performance of Weber’s Der Freisch¸tz, when
the Frenchman was just 21 years old, which he bewailed was “hacked and
mutilated in the most wanton fashion by an arranger”. However, despite severe
misgivings about the production and vocal performances, Berlioz was enchanted
by the work itself, and did not miss a single performance in the run.

When the OpÈra decided to revive the opera, under the title Le
, 17 years later, Berlioz perhaps feared that if he did not
himself take on the task of modifying the work to satisfy the requirements of
the OpÈra’s statutes — no speech on stage, but there must be dancing —
the outcome would be another garbled monstrosity. So, he set about replacing
the spoken dialogue with sung recitatives and also inventing a musical vehicle
for the obligatory ballet, on the condition that the opera was performed
without a word or note being cut or altered.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner performed Berlioz’s French-language version
earlier this year, at the OpÈra Comique in Paris; upon transferring the
production to the Royal Albert Hall for the penultimate Prom of the 2011
season, sets were dispensed with but a few props, costumes and some neat stage
business — even a few rifle shots — lifted what was described in the
programme as a ‘concert performance’ to a genuinely dramatic format.
Indeed, while movements and gestures were deft and economically, it was hard to
see what would have been gained by a more extravagant staging: essentially, the
drama lies within Weber’s score, the vocal lines revealing credible and
engaging relationships between the protagonists, and the orchestral fabric
fully evoking the dark, elemental forests where the melodrama unfolds.

Substituting sung recitative need not necessarily alter the ambience or
dramatic tempo; but, in this instance I felt that the recitative ‘diluted’
the melodrama and weakened the naturalism for which Weber strived. And, to my
ear the gentle lyricism of the French text could not match the grim Gothic
resonances of the original German. Moreover, the cast were not all equal to the
demands of the French text; not surprisingly the two Francophones, bass Luc
Bertin-Hugault and soprano Virginie Pochon, fared best.

Indeed Virginie Pochon’s Annette was a show-stealing performance. Her
striking Act 2 aria revealed her rich bright tone, while in a stunning
‘Chanson’ in Act 3 she combined disciplined accuracy with energetic and
spontaneous freshness.

Act 1 is dominated by male voices. Andrew Kennedy was a naÔve, charming
Max, his light high tenor sweet and appealing, although some of the role’s
low-lying phrases did not carry over the orchestral texture. In this large
arena, he was also a little lacking in stage presence; this Max was certainly
no match for Gidon Saks’s dastardly Gaspard whose committed embodiment of
spitefulness managed to stay just the right side of cartoon villain, and who
also had the vocal heft to fling his venom to the far reaches of the Hall.
Before the seemingly impervious bust of Sir Henry Wood, Gaspard’s devilry
unfolded, as he delved to the depths of a vast cauldron cloaked in swirls of
dry ice to summon up his magic bullets.

Sophie Karth‰user as Agathe has a radiant tone and accurate intonation but
she was rather underpowered, struggling to project above the incisive
orchestral playing; in fairness, Agathe is a two-dimensional character, and
while Karth‰user certainly captured her innocence, she did not uncover the
anxious foreboding in the music which might convey her ‘darker’ qualities.

The smaller parts were competently delivered, although once again the young
singers occasionally seemed a little reticent, vocally and dramatically.
Matthew Brook’s Kouno successfully conveyed his gentleness and tender
feelings for Max, and Robert Davies was an assertive Ottokar. Samuel Evans was
a competent Kilian, while Luc Bertin-Hugault might have strived for more
gravity and stature as the Hermit. However, I found Christian Pelissier’s
Mephistophelian Samiel somewhat exaggerated and lacking in sophistication —
disengaged from his victims and uninterested in their fate.

The superb Monteverdi Choir were utterly convincing and engaging, entrancing
and exiting fluently, moving naturally on the raked staging, one even
descending to the fore-stage to dance a peasant waltz with Kilian. In the
‘folk’ numbers, there was some wonderfully warm singing from the men —
their hunting calls perfectly mimicking the ringing tones of a hunter’s horn
— and some fine performances from the solo bridesmaids in Act 3. Overall the
precision of the ensemble reminded one of Weber’s nationalistic ideals: he
elevated the purity of the folk as representative of the ‘soul’ of the
people, the ‘people’ being an organism in its own right, capable of
democratically determining its own destiny.

In many ways, the most impressive aspect of the performance was the
marvellous playing of the Orchestra RÈvolutionnaire and Romantique, conducted
by Sir John Eliot Gardiner who whisked the players along with dramatic urgency
and fleetness. The overture was richly melodiousness, the four horns lustrous.
Elsewhere string tremolos shimmered, and there were countless woodwind solos of
exquisite clarity; the tone and articulation of the period instruments evoked
the beauty and strength of the natural world, highlighting Weber’s rich
symphonic tone painting. The climactic ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene was
spine-chillingly suggestive, striking horn playing, trembling low woodwind and
ominous booming timpani strokes revealing the harmonic power and radicalism of
Weber’s score.

Having struggled without success to convince the OpÈra to overlook their
demand for a balletic diversion, the best that Berlioz could do was to
orchestrate Weber’s own piano piece, Invitation to the Dance. Although the
intervention of this instrumental divertissement strikes a somewhat disruptive
note in the drama, it did give the instrumentalists another opportunity to

Although the pace lagged a little towards the close — not aided by the
balletic intervention — and the happy ending is rather contrived, this
performance forcefully demonstrated that Weber’s opera, in both Germanic and
Gallic ‘variants’, is a work of both enormous musical charm and radical
creative invention.

Claire Seymour

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access to audio recordings of this performance

image_description=Carl Maria von Weber
product_title=Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freisch¸tz (French version, 1841, with
recitatives by Hector Berlioz)
product_by=Max: Andrew Kennedy; Kilian: Samuel Evans; Kouno: Matthew Brook; Gaspard: Gidon Saks; Annette: Virginie Pochon; Agathe: Sophie Karth‰user; Samiel: Christian Pelissier; Ottakar: Robert Davies; Hermit: Luc Bertin-Hugault. Monteverdi Choir. Orchestra RÈvolutionnaire and Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.BBC Proms 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 9th September 2011.