Berlin, Staatsoper im Schillertheater:”Der Freischütz”

Berlin, Deutsche Staatsoper – Season 2014/2015
Romantic opera in three acts, Text by Friedrich Kind.
Music by Carl Maria von Weber
Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor
Conductor Sebastian Weigle
Chorus Martin Wright
Production Michael Thalheimer
Stage Olaf Altmann
Costumes Katrin Lea Tag
Light Olaf Freese
Berlin, 8th February 2015

How can director Michael Thalheimer expect of everybody in the audience to know “Der Freischütz” by heart? He cannot but he does. I admit that the opera is widely known in Germany and even considered a national opera. But whatever makes it up cannot be found in Thalheimer’s production: romantic forest scenery, picturesque country houses, Biedermeier idyll, horror Romanticism. The iron curtain is down at the beginning and all of a sudden a figure shows up in front of it, a mix of Rumpelstiltskin and a half-naked goblin rather than the terrifying black hunter Samiel, a speaking role played by the actor Peter Moltzen. It is him who Kilian points his rifle at and shoots when the iron curtain is up for the first scene but Samiel remains omnipresent for the rest of the night, which turns out to be a disadvantage for Kaspar whose developing into a villain becomes little comprehensible. As a returning soldier from the Thirty Years‘ War he is in some way a victim himself. Kilian is surrounded by the chorus dressed like tree trunks and carrying dry twigs to probably represent the missing forest. They are mocking at Max who is crouching desperately near the orchestra pit where there is no way to escape. The rest of the stage is dark (light by Olaf Freese) and the scene bears some of the other-worldly dimension of the opera. It looks promising to make something out of the mysteries of the plot the more so as it is set in a kind of black cave or tunnel that looks made of brittle slate. It has a circular opening at the end to let the performers come and go. The stage by Olaf Altmann reminds of Götz Friedrich’s Ring production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. What was a brilliant idea for Wagner’s giant work in the 1980s loses its attraction here very soon and confines the singers to a large extent to old-fashioned ramp-singing. The characters hardly interact with each other and the performance reminds more and more of a concert in costumes intensified by the missing dialogues that are essential for the run of the story. Lots of details get lost and the phrases added by Thalheimer for Samiel do not help understand the plot better. The famous Wolf’s Glen scene especially suffers from the uniform stage. Seven hardly discernible women repeatedly crawling across the stage are supposed to represent the seven magic bullets cast by Kaspar who therefore almost abuses the dead eagle shot down by Max at the beginning. The scene does not become more threatening when Samiel is jumping around like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kaspar starts smearing blood on himself. Agathe and Ännchen do the same later having forebodings about the future. In the last act Samiel appears with twigs of green leaves on his head obviously linked to Bacchus rather than the devil. Thalheimer is a well-known theatre director and “Der Freischütz” is the fifth opera he has staged but his job this time would probably not be sufficient to pass the entrance examination for studies of opera production. There are two interesting aspects though. Max is so desperate at the beginning of “Durch die Wälder” that he nearly wants to shoot himself and Ännchen as Agathe’s counterpart has so much zest for life that she even starts some hanky-panky with Samiel during her aria “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen”. The costumes by Katrin Lea Tag are rather traditional with Agathe and Ännchen having the privilege to wear cheerfully coloured dresses. The production is more satisfactory from the musical point of view. The overture starts with some slow but beautiful unison followed by little uncertainties from the wind players. Conductor Sebastian Weigle sets slow tempos sometimes and even tries to create expressionistic moments so that the Staatskapelle Berlin occasionally sounds piercing and direct rather than romantic. The Staatsopernchor (chorus master Martin Wright) proves once again to be first class already in the opening scene as well as in the Wolf’s Glen and for the tunefulness of the popular Hunters’ Chorus sung with big beer glasses in their hands. Among the singers Burkhard Fritz stands out as Max, an early Heldentenor role. His vocal emission is steady and effortless and he masters all lyrical and dramatic aspects of the part excellently. A great performance! Depicted by the production in a constant state of despair and fear of losing Agathe he remains a little one-dimensional as a character. Another plus is Anna Prohaska as Ännchen whose lyrical rather than light soprano impresses through its clarity and delicacy. Her sometimes slightly piercing tone goes with the role very well. The bass-baritone Tobias Schabel makes most out of Kaspar with his dark-timbered voice singing an exciting revenge aria in the first act. I honestly have mixed feelings about Dorothea Röschmann’s Agathe. Her soprano has grown darker and sounds colourful in the middle range. Thus she sings a superb “Leise, leise” with an unorthodox breathing technique that is typical of her but the fast second part of the aria turns into a challenge and the final phrase sounded inappropriately veristic. Her “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” is not sung without some effort, either. I admit that singers such as Elfride Trötschel and Elisabeth Grümmer set a nearly unattainable standard whenever it comes to vocal radiance and intimate singing. The young bass Jan Martiník is anybody but an old man as the wise Hermit even though he has sufficient vocal weight. As his counterpart Roman Trekel is the keenly ordering local prince Ottokar whose striking baritone makes clear that he obeys the hermit’s advice only because God is still above him in the pecking order. After decades of absence bass veteran Victor von Halem returns to the Berlin opera stage in sonorous voice as Agathe’s father Kuno. The baritone Maximilian Krummen sings the peasant Kilian in a robust way and Verena Allertz, Katharina Bolding, Konstanze Löwe, Julia Mencke and Claudia Tuch complete the cast as harmonizing bridesmaids in old-fashioned country dresses. Photo Katrin Ribbe