Der Freisch¸tz, London

Premiered at the
Berlin Schauspielhaus in 1821, by the end of the decade it had already received
productions in Danish, Swedish, Czech, Russian, English, French, Hungarian,
Polish and Dutch, and by 1850, stagings had been mounted as far afield as Cape
Town, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney. Of course, it is in many ways the
quintessential German Romantic opera, though one should always remember how
much influence other ‘national’ traditions wield over it, but it is
saddening that we, or at least the powers that be, should apparently evince so
little interest in this tradition. Oberon was programmed to appear
this season at Covent Garden, a mouthwatering prospect, only to be cancelled in
favour of yet another run — within the same season! — for La
. The only staging of Der Freisch¸tz I have seen in
London, or indeed elsewhere, was that by ENO in 1999. Meanwhile, Calixto Bieito
has just presented a new production in Berlin for the Komische Oper, a must-see
staging by all accounts. Perhaps ENO, with its reinvigorated interest in
co-productions will bring it across the Channel at some point; we can but hope.
Many thanks, in any case, are due to the LSO for this concert performance.

It is not, of course, a work without its problems, first and foremost of
which is surely Johann Friedrich Kind’s libretto (even if that seems a
masterpiece when compared with the ludicrous effort from James Robinson PlanchÈ
for Oberon). The dialogue, especially in a concert performance, can
present difficulties for a non-German cast, so it is understandable that a
decision was made to ditch it in favour of an English narration by Amanda
Holden. Whether the latter in any sense marked an improvement remained unclear,
to say the least. Malcolm Sinclair’s delivery, whilst clear, was
definitely on the ac-tor-ly side, the narration itself prosaic and yet lodged
precariously between sanitised fairy-tale — fairy-tales should be
anything but sanitised! — and camp. Of the work’s darkness there
was little or nothing to be heard. In 1841, sickened and impoverished by the
superficiality of Parisian musical culture, the homesick Wagner wrote of a
performance: ‘It seems to be the poem of those Bohemian woods themselves,
whose dark and solemn aspect permits us at once to grasp how the isolated man
would believe himself, if not prey to a dÊmonic power of Nature, then at least
in eternal submission thereto.’ For a sense of that crucial quality, one
had to turn to the music — and indeed, perhaps one always did.

Sir Colin Davis has a lengthy history with the work; he recorded it with the
Staatskapelle Dresden — Weber’s own orchestra, of course, and
Wagner’s too — twenty years ago, and these two performances have
been recorded for release on LSO Live. This was not a reading of incendiary
drama such as one hears on Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording, also
with the Dresden orchestra, but won over as one can hardly fail to be by that
performance, it is easy to forget how unorthodox it is. Take, for instance, the
waltz in the first act, preceding Max’s recitative and aria.
Kleiber’s tempo is, on the face of it, bizarrely fast, though somehow it
works. Furtw‰ngler takes it far more slowly, as did Davis, though his reading
sounded closer to the sound and at times implacability one might have expected
from a Klemperer Freisch¸tz. (Now there is a thought; he certainly
conducted it in his youth; indeed he made his debut at the Prague Deutsches
Landestheater with it, in 1907.) These were sturdier peasants; I can imagine
some finding the results staid by comparison, but there was actually a subtler
vigour at work.

The Overture was another case in point, its opening gravely Beethovenian.
Despite the difference in tempo and almost everything else, I was somehow put
in mind of Coriolan. An unfortunate split horn note was heard upon the
horns entry, but thereafter, throughout the work, the LSO’s horns were on
excellent form, just as required in this of all operas. There was a sense of
fairy-tale: I thought of Davis’s
H‰nsel und Gretel for the Royal Opera
. But there was also, and
increasingly so, Wagnerian gravity to be heard, reminding us that, so many
times in this work, Siegfried is but a stone’s throw away.
Fafner’s lair takes form in the Wolf’s Glen Scene. And there was no
shortage of dramatic drive to the conclusion of the Overture, but Davis and his
wonderful orchestra saw no reason to resort to anything hinting at superficial
display. Orchestral malevolence was to be heard in spades at the opening of
Kaspar’s aria, ‘Schweig! damit dich niemand warnt,’ and a
proper storm was cooked up in that celebrated finale to the second act.
(Electronic sound effects proved slightly alienating, but what does one do in a
concert performance?) If not exactly folksy — and does one really want
that? — there was certainly a nice orchestral jauntiness to
ƒnnchen’s ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’. Whilst a
list of notable orchestral solos would doubtless extend to almost every section
principal, I feel I cannot fail to mention the superlative contributions of
leader, Carmine Lauri, Rebecca Gilliver (cello), Gareth Davies (flute), and of
course, the viola obbligato in ‘Einst tr‰umte meiner sel’gen
Base’ (it looked like Paul Silverthorne to me, although the programme
said otherwise, so I should probably credit Edward Vanderspare too, just in

The London Symphony Chorus was on predictably fine form too. Its choral
weight and attack registering unfailingly from the opening Huntsman’s
Chorus onwards. Both the chorus and Davis were keenly aware of the echoes of
Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten — they recorded it relatively
recently — a little later on during the first act. Would that one could
hear more choral singing of such distinction in the opera house! Simon
O’Neill performed a decent, professional task. He can sing the notes
— and did. He can sing the words too, but there remains, as I have
generally found with this artist, a lurking suspicion that he is not always
entirely clear what the words mean. Moreover, the pinched quality of his voice
is, despite its heft, becoming increasingly pronounced. It is perhaps easier to
take here than in a work on the scale of Die
, but one could hardly call it ingratiating. Christine
Brewer again certainly has the required vocal heft for the work. Her wobble
became unduly pronounced in her second act aria, but sincerity of spirit won
through here, and in a lovely third-act cavatina. To start with, I found Sally
Matthews’s timbre a little pallid, but was soon won over. There was
certainly much to esteem in her clarity of line (not least vis-‡-vis certain of
her colleagues), and she handled the coloratura not only with ease but with a
sure understanding of its dramatic purpose. A distinguished performance indeed!
Lars Woldt was a late replacement for Falk Struckmann as Kaspar. He shone in
the role, not least on account of his natural ease with his native tongue. I
can imagine some might have found his vibrato a little heavy — I did not
— but there was, vibrato aside, something impressively resounding to his
tonal quality and delivery. The appearance of Stephan Loges as Ottokar —
it is pretty much impossible to judge his electronic appearance as Zamiel
— made one wish, from its elegance of delivery, that the character had
more to sing. Gidon Saks wobbled a bit as the Hermit, but I am not sure that
matters too much with respect to that particular role. I should also definitely
mention a winning, stylish Killian from Marcus Farnsworth; again, it was
difficult not to wish that the role might be expanded. Martin Snell and Lucy
Hall rounded off with aplomb a cast of many virtues.

If it is difficult, then, quite to see those Bohemian Woods in the concrete
jungle of the Barbican Centre, and the nature of the concert performance made
for a less Romantic rendering than one would hope for in the theatre, this
performance exhibited many singular qualities. It will certainly be worth
hearing on CD.

Mark Berry

image_description=Carl Maria von Weber
product_title=Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freisch¸tz, J.277 (concert performance)
product_by=Ottokar, Zamiel: Stephan Loges; Kuno: Martin Snell; Agathe: Christine Brewer; ƒnnchen: Sally Matthews; Kaspar: Lars Woldt; Max: Simon O’Neil; Hermit: Gidon Saks; Killian: Marcus Farnsworth; Four Bridesmaids: Lucy Hall; Narrator: Malcom Sinclair; London Symphony Chorus ; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, Saturday 21 April 2012.
product_id=Above: Carl Maria von Weber