At first blush Axel Köhler’s 2015 production of Weber’s Der Freischütz for Dresden’s Semperoper seems entirely traditional but as it unfolds it reveals some real depth that pretty much restores the sense of horror that the original audience felt. It’s set in an indeterminate time period in the aftermath of war. The first act looks quite conventional but there’s a very tense air to it with both sexuality and violence just below, and occasionally above, the surface. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by our first look at Georg Zeppenfeld who is a very fine and rather plastic Kaspar. There are echoes here of his König Heinrich in Bayreuth.
Act 2 opens with a split set. The girls’ bedroom is over a cellar where some things appear to happen. It’s hard to tell on the video as it’s all very dark and the director, probably wisely, keeps us “upstairs”. The girls, especially the Ännchen of Christina Landshamer are quite charming and seem to belong to a different world than the crowds of the first act. It may be this ability to make the contrasting “worlds” of this rather peculiar piece each credible in its own way that is Köhler’s masterstroke. Eventually the set opens out to reveal the Wolf’s Glen. There is real menace in this scene. Projections and hanging corpses create a genuinely “horrid” (in the Gothic sense) effect. Kaspar busily saws the head of a corpse. It all looks very good on video but I would think that in a darkened theatre it must have been spectacular. The Satanic antics which can so easily descend into farce remain quite credible here.
Act 3 is equally successful. It starts with children dancing/acting a scene in which little boys hunt little girls, dressed as wild animals and kill and remove body parts as trophies. It’s an effective commentary on Agathe’s role in the drama. The religiosity of the closing scene is played straight, which is pretty effective after what has come before. There are several deft touches and a rather chilling conclusion that brings us back to some kind of reality. I wouldn’t describe this as a “high concept” production, nor is it gimmicky, but it engages the music and text in some intriguing ways which, to my mind, go a long way to restoring for a 21st century audience the emotional impact that the work created in the 1820s.
It seems almost unfair to single out individual performances in ewhat is a fine ensemble effort but I’ve already noted Landshamer and Zeppenfeld. Michael König as Max sings very well and plays things pretty straight which probably makes sense. One could say the same for the Agathe of Sara Kubiak. She’s got quite a rich, sweet soprano which she uses to good effect and which contrasts nicely with the perkier but lighter Landshamer. Albert Dohmen is a suitably bluff, solid, Kuno and there’s just a hint of a very different world, broader horizons perhaps?, to Adrian Eröd’s slightly sinister Ottokar. The minor roles are all well taken and the chorus is first rate. Christian Thielemann conducts with the Staatskapelle in the pit. It’s what one would expect from Thielemann in this kind of material. There’s a great attention to detail and every emotional nuance of the score is brought out. Very fine work indeed.
Tiziano Mancini is responsible for the video. I think this is a really difficult production to film. It’s very dark and the big picture and the details both matter. On balance I think Mancini does a very decent job but it all made me really wish I was watching in the theatre not on video. Technically it was filmed in HD and it comes over about as well as DVD can convey something like this. It’s definitely one where I would have preferred to be watching the Blu-ray version as even a bit of extra detail would have helped. The DTS surround sound is also high quality. There are no extras on the two disk package bar a few trailers. The booklet has a detailed track listing and a short essay about the work’s relationship with Dresden. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
This is very different from the much more abstract version from Zürich with Harnoncourt conducting. If Zürich was an attempt to abstract modern musical and dramatic values from a piece that often seems dated, this Dresden version seems rather to be trying to restore the original impact. They make a fascinating contrast.