Der Freischütz
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Der Freischütz

Royal Danish Opera

THE ROYAL DANISH OPERA'S SEASON opened in September with the second revival of Kasper Holten’s searing Die Frau ohne Schatten from 2011. The Frau revival served almost as a reminder of what Holten was capable of before he left Copenhagen for Covent Garden—in the days before his productions got that bit too jittery and self-conscious under London’s relentless critical spotlight.  (In December, Holten announced that he will depart Covent Garden in 2017, when his current contract ends.)

In the program notes for his new staging of Der Freischütz at Royal Danish Opera (seen Nov. 7), Holten writes, “I can personally relate to how Max feels … put under an inhuman amount of pressure.”  Der Freischütz, which marks Holten’s directorial homecoming in Copenhagen, will be seen at Covent Garden in 2017. “The difficult operas can be easier to stage than the easy ones,” he proposes in the same text, words that have particular resonance when you consider his hits (Die Frau, Krol Roger) against his misses (Onegin, Don Giovanni). 

Holten’s vision of the traditionally “difficult” Der Freischütz extends that trend. With a tweaked scenario of homecoming from war—actually a refocusing on the opera’s original setting, seen through the Napoleonic conflicts of Weber’s own century rather than The Thirty Years’ War he imagined—we have a context for the piece’s awkward ideas of manhood and soullessness. Many of its problems are lessened: Max’s weak heroic potential is bypassed; Kaspar becomes more than a cardboard villain, with clear reasoning given for his devious behavior; the one-dimensional Ännchen is now a lively reflecting board for Agathe’s fears and anxieties. 

Holten reimagines the Romantic notion of selling one’s soul as the seismic act of killing another man. In the Wolf’s Glen—here the corpse-laden battlefield that Kaspar and the chorus trudged back from during the Overture—Max is overwhelmed with confidence when his magic bullets hit target. But before the seventh is fired, a bewildered soldier appears. Kaspar urges the adrenalin-blinded Max to shoot at the soldier and he does. From there, Max must embark on a journey of moral and mental recovery that has particular resonance in our new age of endless war.

Two elements counter the undeniably episodic, stop-start nature of the opera in its original form: Holten strips out all the spoken text that doesn’t move the action forward, and designer Es Devlin’s scenography combines with the director’s dramatic vision to put everyone and everything under intense pressure. Her beautiful, fascinating mechanical designs encase the action in the chamber of a gun, which can become a ticking clock, or in Agathe’s case, a hamster wheel of societal expectation. 

Casting has been variable at the Royal Danish Opera lately but there are no weak links here. Michael Schade’s plotting of Max’s emotional trajectory is thrilling and his voice has an attractive gleam and focus, even if his leading notes could do with more of his pistol’s accuracy. Gisela Stille shines as Agathe, never better than in “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” at the start of Act III, which filled with air and floated over the orchestra. Anke Briegel as Ännchen brings her character to life but occasionally sounded vocally tight higher up. Oliver Zwarg’s alluring, chocolatey bass-baritone can sound worn, but fits the character of Kaspar. 

It is in the pit that we are reminded of Der Freischütz’s time (1821) and place, and its position between Fidelio (1805) and Der FliegendeHolländer (1843) and the German Classical soil in which its Romantic seeds were planted. The Royal Danish Orchestra under Dirk Kaftan absolutely captures that sound, with minimal vibrato and brass full of period stylistics. It strikes me as the right way around: Holten can shade this idiosyncratically German story for a non-German audience, but most of us need reminding where its pivotal music comes from.  —Andrew Mellor 

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