OPERA NEWS - Der Freischütz
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Der Freischütz

Zurich Opera

In Review ZUrich Freischutz hdl 117
Ventris, Davidsen and Petit in Zurich Opera’s Freischütz
© Hans Jörg Michel

ZURICH OPERA OPENED its 2016–17 season on October 16 with a new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s groundbreaking Freischütz, which marked the birth of German Romantic opera. Der Freischütz demands directorial intervention. Its naïve portrayal of the struggle between self-satisfied, God-fearing burghers and demonic bogeymen is difficult to swallow. Unfortunately, Herbert Fritsch’s production for Zurich Opera was as self-satisfied as the villagers in the libretto. This director’s technical skills are second to none: the creative use of stage space, the expert maneuvering of the chorus and the conviction of the acting all were superb. But Fritsch seemed to have a lack of empathy for the opera itself. The overture is regarded as one of the mainstays of orchestral repertoire. For its more than ten-minute length, the audience was bombarded with video images of pulsating concentric circles morphing into a target. I sought refuge in focusing on the conductor, Mark Albrecht, whose energetic, committed communication to the orchestra told one far more about the drama about to unfold.

Once the curtain had risen, we were able to appreciate the astounding creativity of costumer Victoria Behr. Her gloriously colored, over-the-top outfits indicated that we were in a fairy tale. Act I belongs to Max, an unusual Romantic hero with an inferiority complex. English tenor Christopher Ventris was impressive dramatically, but his labored, heavy singing of “Durch die Wälder”was delivered with uncontrolled vibrato and too much heft for this small opera house. The act ends with a demanding aria for Caspar, the renegade forester, here superbly delivered by Christof Fischesser, a consistently impressive artist who showed off coloratura technique without compromising his dark bass intonation. 

In Act II’s more serious territory, director Fritsch’s jokey interpretation began to pall. The lovely duet that opens the act illustrates perfectly the contrast between flighty Ännchen and serious Agathe, beautifully sung by French coloratura Mélissa Petit and Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, respectively. Petit’s ensuing lightweight aria was sung with great aplomb. And so we came to the moment that music-lovers cherish—Agathe’s “Leise, leise.” Davidsen delivered this iconic aria with beauty of tone and depth of feeling. Music critic Michael Scott has (with some justice) described Weber’s vocal writing as instrumental in conception, but Davidsen’s absolute command of the difficult cabaletta belied that claim.

The Wolf’s Glen scene is the core of the opera—and the most difficult section to bring off for a modern audience. The decision to have it brightly lit made it impossible to identify with the drama. Fritsch’s trump card was his Samiel (Florian Anderer), an inspired devil, who insinuated himself into every scene with comic-book devilry. By Act III, the repetition of initially amusing ideas had become subject to the law of diminishing returns, not helped by our having recently seen some of the same gags in the director’s lamentable King Arthur. Even in these trying circumstances, Davidsen’s sublime singing and the equally impressive sonority of Wenwei Zhang, as the Hermit, renewed one’s faith in Weber’s vision. —Martin Wheeler

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