Carl Maria von Weber’s greatest opera has had a rough time in the last few years. Once hugely popular, Der Freischütz (The Marksman) these days gets relatively little play.
This is probably for a couple of reasons. German Singspiel—the combination of spoken and sung recitative—lacks the popular appeal of sung-through operas and was one of the reasons Berlioz later reset some of Weber’s spoken recitatives to music. More importantly, Freischütz’s plot relies on its successfully creating a sense of the supernatural. Given the jaded sensibilities of modern audiences, this can be difficult, especially on the opera stage.
Against the odds, the new and highly inventive production of Le Freischütz (styled in French with Le in the title, rather than the German Der, for over a century) at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, though short of creating real foreboding, does something perhaps even more original: by its imaginative character development and staging, it evokes a sense of pleasurable, if uncomfortable, creepiness.
Max, an assistant gamekeeper, is in love with Agathe, the daughter of his employer, the head gamekeeper. Agathe has previously refused the advances of Kaspar, another assistant gamekeeper. Following tradition, Agathe is to be married to the winner of a shooting match held the next day. As the opera opens, a bewildered Max is ridiculed by his neighbors for having just lost in a practice session—bewildered because he is easily the best shot in Bohemia and is terrified about losing the next day’s competition (and Agathe). The next day also promises to be troublesome for Kaspar, however, as by prior arrangement he is due to surrender his soul to Samiel, the “Black Huntsman” upon whose sorcery the plot relies. Trying to find a way out of this pickle, Kaspar persuades Max to take several of Samiel’s magic never-miss bullets, guaranteed to give him victory.
It will be a hollow victory, though, as Samiel has agreed to take Max’s soul instead of Kaspar’s and, regardless of its purported aim, Max’s last shot will end up in Agathe’s heart—a tidy settling of scores on Kaspar’s part. Along the way, various portents reveal themselves and dreams are dreamed, none of which bode well for the couple. On the day of the competition, however, when the fatal shot is fired, both Kaspar and Agathe collapse. But a holy hermit deflects the bullet into Kaspar, who dies cursing heaven (en blasphemant, as the surtitles say). After Agathe staggers to her feet unharmed, the local duke initially banishes Max for tampering with the competition, but then allows the hermit to commute Max’s banishment to a year’s probation, whereupon he will then be allowed to marry Agathe.
No strong case here for plot-inspired terror, or even the suspension of disbelief.
The power of the new production lies in the almost-constant onstage presence of Samiel, played by the dancer and acrobat Clément Dazin, who wastes no time putting the audience on edge. During the overture, just as we are settling in, Samiel walks across the stagefront, a thin black-clad figure smoothly juggling six glowing balls, his visual leitmotif, before reappearing at the back of the stage where we see him, from a distance in profile, tipping Kaspar prone and sucking out his soul, running his hands over his victim—ick! After that attention-grabber, the scheduled plot begins to unfold.
The production uses darkness to full advantage. Holograms and video images serve as ghostly projections. While Max and Kaspar (now minus his soul) or Agathe and her friend, the soubrette Ännchen, are fully or half-lit during their numbers, Samiel is in full shadow or hidden in black, his presence given away only by his wildly virtuosic juggling, now low, now high in crazy loops, the balls sometimes extinguished and relit in a single arc—simply mesmerizing. On the occasions when Samiel finds himself illuminated, as in his grotesquely contortionist dance sequence in the first act, it is to unnerve us in a different way. Although Samiel’s is ostensibly a speaking role, his silence and sinister gesture are more effective than words could be. At the end of the opera, when the action (and singing) focuses on Agathe’s miraculous revival and the Duke’s reversal about Max’s banishment, Samiel slowly drags Kaspar’s corpse offstage, stopping twice to defile it further. No prizes for guessing what held the audience’s attention.
The singing and orchestra were very good. Max (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) and Kaspar (Vladimir Baykov) hit the middle of every note. Agathe (Johanni van Oostrum) and Ännchen (Chiara Skerath) were equal, with (as to be expected) Agathe’s prayer aria “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” and Ännchen’s Act III “Einst träumte meiner” exceptional—the cello and voice combination in the latter so reminiscent of Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” in Laurence Equilbey’s superb staging of Don Giovanni a few years back. In the end, though, it was Samiel and the production team of Raphäel Navarro, Valentine Losseau, and Clément Debailleul who received the audience’s loudest applause. The unsettling atmosphere they and Samiel lent to the staging gave full context to the sweetness and power of Weber’s music.