Historic Der Freischütz

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Hamburg State Opera cooperated with Polyphon and NDR to make a series of thirteen films for television of assorted operas.  They are all available as a boxed set called Cult Operas of the 1970s but one or two of them are also available separately.  One such is a 1968 recording of Weber’s Der Freischütz.  It was directed for film/TV by Rolf Liebermann and recorded in the studio using the HSO’s stage production.  I think the action is lip synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack (normal practice at the time) but I’m not sure.

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Let’s deal with technical aspects first.  The film was shot in colour in TV (4:3) aspect ratio and has been restored rather well for DVD.  In terms of colour values and so on it looks remarkably like a fairly low budget movie of the period; Hammer’s Tomb of Ligeia perhaps.  Make up and hair dos rather contribute to that vibe.  Shot selection, unsurprisingly, is geared to a TV set so it’s heavy on close ups.  The soundtrack is mono.  The voices come off quite well but the orchestral sound is definitely on the thin side.  It’s not HD by any meanss but it’s surprisingly watchable and listenable.

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The production itself is essentially traditional.  No great effort is made to place it in the aftermath of the Thirty Years war.  Rather it’s generic opera peasants and huntsman (i.e. of some indefinably past period but less grubby).  It’s actually quite good with some careful Personregie and effectively managed appearances of Samiel (a rather sinister looking Bernhard Minetti).  The Wolf’s Glen scene is quite atmospheric and there’s certainly no attempt to play for laughs.  There are cuts, especially to the dialogue, but that’s fine with me as it somewhat downplays the sentimentality and moves the action along.

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There’s some good singing and acting.  I particularly enjoyed the ladies; Arlene Saunders as a very convincing and beautifully sung Agathe and Edith Mathis as a very cute and perky Ännchen.  The men are not shabby either.  Gottlob Frick chews the scenery a bit as Kaspar but it’s a very solid voice.  Toni Blankenheim is a straightforward  but effective Kuno.  There’s a very dignified cameo at the end by Hans Sotin as the hermit.  The only singing I wasn’t so sure about was Ernst Kozub’s Max.  There are certain rather Wagnerian mannerisms in his tenor that I wasn’t convinced were necessary or idiomatic but YMMV.  Leopold Ludwig probably takes things a bit slower than one might today but it’s not extreme.  This isn’t Klemperer doing Mozart.  I can’t judge the orchestra.  It’s impossible to separate what is their natural sound from the limitations of the recording.

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The leaflet has an essay and synopsis which casts some useful light on the whole “Opera for TV” project but there are no extras on the disk.  Subtitle options are English, German, French and Spanish.  So, a historical document that’s also genuinely enjoyable.  That said, if I were only going to buy one recording of Der Freischütz I would have to prefer the recent  Dresden version which is also very satisfying but gets modern HD audio and video.

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2 thoughts on “Historic Der Freischütz

  1. Arlene Saunders was a wonderful and (at least in this country) very underrated singer. I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of her rare US appearances at the NYCO and Met and I still remember them. An American singer who based her career in Germany. I don’t know why this opera isn’t performed more often–the spoken dialouge is a drag (esp for non-German speakers) but as in this production it can be cut and we now have subtitles.

    • I’m not sure why Der Freischütz isn’t done more often in North America. I think it has plenty of traction in Germany. Opera Atelier did it here a couple of years ago with dialogue in English but singing in German. Regrettably, Pynkowski played it for laughs wherever possible which I think is a huge mistake. Based on this one recording I’d agree with you that Ms. Saunders was a very classy singer.

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