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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (1820)
Ernst Kozub (tenor) – Max; Gottlob Frick (baritone) – Kaspar; Franz Grundheber (baritone) – Kilian; Arlene Saunders (soprano) – Agathe; Toni Blankenheim (baritone) – Cuno; Edith Mathis (soprano) – Ännchen; Tom Krause (baritone) - Prince Ottakar; Bernhard Minetti (baritone) – Samiel; Hans Sotin (baritone) - the Hermit
Chorus and ballet of the Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig
Directed for TV: Joachim Hess
rec. Hamburg, 1968
NTSC All regions 2007
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 271 [123:00] 

 


This film was made for German television in 1968, at a time when film was just beginning to expand the way in which music is experienced. This was filmed like a movie is filmed, because that gave the best, most dramatic results given the constraints of the time. As film, it has all the virtues of a well made movie. It’s vivid, direct, every angle and frame created to enhance the opera. The way the cameras are used was state of the art, for they veer in and out for close-ups and move across the set, giving an almost tangible sense of depth. This is no point-and-shoot, flat-stage filming, and all the better for being presented in art movie form. Technology makes possible things that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of theatre directors in Weber’s time. Euryanthe, for example, wasn’t performed because its demands were just too great.

Exaggerated acting was once the norm when audiences were sitting in unamplified theatres, often too far from the stage to see clearly. Photographs of early performers show how stylised they could be before close-ups taught people to expect more naturalistic performance. There are a few small vestiges of this tradition in this film – Agathe’s theatrical makeup being a case in point. But this is very much a “new” kind of production because it focuses on the opera as drama, and allows much more subtle nuance to come across. For example, the camera dwells on Max’s face as he silently agonises over his predicament. It highlights details like the entry of Samiel, resplendent in red velvet, his face lit with a sinister glow. Here is a wonderful, multi-dimensional realization of the Wolf’s Glen, whose portrayal is crucial to the whole plot. 

The opera begins with that famous long overture. Instead of shooting the film against an unmoving curtain, the producers of this film seized on the idea of showing a 19th century toy theatre backdrop. It’s a great idea because it reminds us that this opera is very much of its time and place. The hokey plot was never meant to be realistic or logical. Audiences in Weber’s time were quite prepared to suspend logical judgement, and get into the “spirit” of theatre. Nowadays, because we’re used to vérité in film, we’ve lost that magic in many ways.

Indeed, it is the filming that makes this production worth watching. Performances are good, with Edith Mathis totally stealing the show. She’s an incredibly vivacious and lively Ännchen. Her voice is so pure and fresh, yet she manages nuances that indicate more depth of character – she is after all the “sensible” one in contrast to the rather patchily constructed Agathe. Mathis is superlatively photogenic and animated – the camera “makes love to her” as fashion photographers say. She totally obliterates Arlene Saunders who comes over, alas as more pinched and stale than she would have in traditional stagecraft And that singing! It is no surprise that she was to become an astoundingly good Agathe in her own time. 

Also excellent is Gottlob Frick as Kaspar. His voice is so expressive that he can characterize the part neurotic tension. It is after all, more than a comic part because he’s cursed and under demonic pressure. This is important, because in this opera, and in the Romantic mindset, dark forces were dangerous. Like the deep forests in Grimm, the Wolf’s Glen is a symbol of the subconscious and of the irrational. It’s an idea central to the Romantic psyche. At any moment, dark forces can reach out and destroy, as Agathe finds out all too clearly. Frick’s Kaspar is so well defined that he’s engaging and sympathetic, which adds to the impact of the plot. Less so is the ostensible hero, Max. Ernst Kozub doesn’t have the intensity of, say, Peter Schreier. Luckily for him, the camera compensates by focusing on his facial expressions and body language, so even if he’s not singing, he’s communicating. More interesting is Franz Grundheber as Kilian still quite young and showing promise. 

Perhaps the weakest part of this production is the orchestra, conducted by Leopold Ludwig. It’s certainly not actually bad but lacks the clean lyricism that’s in the music, and in particular the glorious overture. The choruses are extremely well paced – the high male voices being specially well-balanced and clear.

All in all, this isn’t a first choice Freischütz. However, if you’re interested in opera production, it gives valuable insight into how opera can be enhanced as art movie. And, Edith Mathis! Her singing alone should justify the price of this DVD.

Anne Ozorio 

 

 


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