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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (as Hunter’s Bride) J277 [137.00]
Michael König (tenor) - Max; Juliane Banse (soprano) - Agathe; Michael Völle (bass) - Kaspar; Regula Mühlemann (soprano) - Ännchen; Franz Grundheber (baritone) - Ottakar; René Pape (bass) - Hermit; Olaf Bär (baritone) - Killian; Benno Schollum (bass) - Kuno
Berlin Radio Choir, London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London; Teldex Studio, Berlin; Aix-en-Provence, 2010
Bonuses:Making of Hunter’s Bride: interviews with cast and crew: audio commentary by director Jens Neubert: Photo gallery [75.00]
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108 097 [212.00]

Weber’s Der Freischütz is the archetype of the German romantic opera. Its fascination with nature is one of its principal hallmarks. Sadly, it has not been a very lucky opera on video. For many years the old available version was a dreadful production from the Württemberg State Opera where the producer treated the work like some sort of grotesque Walt Disney cartoon, with cuddly - and not so cuddly - monsters prancing around a stage inhabited by a cast that looked and behaved like a collection of refugees from a Bavarian beer festival. That DVD astonishingly remains available I have not seen later issues of productions from Hamburg State Opera - there have been two including a vintage 1968 version in black-and-white - or the Zurich Opera, but they do not appear to have received much enthusiasm from other critics. This Blu-Ray appears to be the first issue which comes in the shape of a specially-made film of the work. The title given here, Hunter’s Bride, was apparently that originally chosen by Weber. It was only replaced by the familiar Freischütz shortly before the Berlin première in 1821.
 
The booklet makes some very big claims for the unique nature of this film. In fact, a good many of the techniques employed here have been used before. The use of natural backgrounds - very well chosen and photographed - recalls similar films by Petr Weigl, who made a number of operatic films in the 1980s. Unlike Weigl, who fitted his realisations to pre-existing recorded soundtracks, this film by Jens Neubert was specially recorded for this release. It features the actual singers playing the parts. The score is treated with respect, with only small trimmings being made in the spoken dialogue, so we get a proper representation of the score as Weber wrote it. Weigl was not always so scrupulous, as in his cutting of Solti’s Eugene Onegin; and Franco Zeffirelli’s butchery of Verdi’s Otello for his film of the opera is notorious. Similarly the use of singers miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack is as old as the hills. Here modern technology has done a great deal to overcome the problems of inaccurate lip-synching which used to plague the technique in the past, not to mention the possibility of retakes. Attempts have also been made to match the sound of the voices to the acoustic and the visual picture, in the manner pioneered by John Culshaw in the Karajan Aida during the late 1950s. This approach is intermittently successful although when Agathe goes out into the open air of the night sky in Leise, leise her voice remains resolutely in the same resonant acoustic. It does however have the disadvantage that the orchestra, and sometimes the chorus, are relegated to a background. This leaves their contribution indistinct. It represents a real disadvantage with Weber’s often highly imaginative orchestration. Some of the sound effects too obscure the music when one would really like to hear it. Once the Overture, with its visions of war and destruction, is out of the way they cease to be troublesome.
 
Mind you, the use of realistic filmed backgrounds does have some disadvantages of its own. Weber originally set the story during the early seventeenth century. Convincing settings of that period being presumably in short supply the director has brought forward the action by two centuries to the era of the Napoleonic Wars. In itself this is not inappropriate, with Agathe’s household breathing the atmosphere that we associate with Jane Austen. The unburied bodies of soldiers from the campaigns litter the ground in the Wolf’s Glen. It makes the supernatural elements of the story, in particular that scene in the Wolfsschlucht, rather harder to make convincing on screen. Despite some effective use of CGI - with birds of the night and pentagrams rising into the sky - one feels that more could have been done here to convey a sense of nature menacing the protagonists. Also the decision to keep the Black Hunter Zamiel off the screen altogether leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling that the supernatural happenings are all going on in the characters’ minds. This is possibly aided by whatever it is they have been drinking. I am not sure that such a psychologically sophisticated approach really works here. Some may miss the concrete terrors that Weber - influenced by the Gothic revival typified by such works as The Monk and Frankenstein - had in his mind; but in its own terms the production is highly effective.
 
It must be said that the reason this is not a worse problem is largely due to the superlative acting of the cast. Max, with his staring eyes glittering in the camera, conveys a properly manic impression in his increasing desperation. His relationship with Kaspar is rendered more significant by the clearly pre-existing friendship between these old comrades in the Napoleonic campaigns. Their singing is quite special too, with Michael König a resonant and determined Max. There’s none of the usual wimp here: even when he admits he has been weak, we don’t really believe him. After all he has plenty of body in his lower voice to cope with the unexpectedly low-lying tessitura of much of his part. Michael Völle’s low notes as Kaspar, on the other hand, are satisfactory rather than really solid. He is otherwise excellent and he and König strike sparks off each other. Their scenes together carry real dramatic and musical conviction.
 
Coming to the two ladies, Juliane Banse has a beautiful creamy tone which exactly captures the character of Agathe, whom she makes into a quite self-possessed young lady trying to cope with a situation that she cannot understand. The young Regula Mühlemann is a real discovery, a soubrette with enough power to make her narration of her sister’s nightmare - which can often seem trite - into a highlight. It is astonishing to learn that originally the intention was that Banse should have an actress miming her music. When she enquired why she alone was being singled out in this manner, she discovered that her agent had said she was too busy to accommodate a film schedule. Accordingly she gave up her scheduled holidays in order to take part. Even small roles such as Ottakar and Killian are taken by singers of the stature of Franz Grundheber and Olaf Bär. René Pape is a real tower of strength as the Hermit making his final scene into something much more than the conventional deus ex machina. It is notable how much more comfortable he sounds in his natural bass register than in his recent forays into roles such as Wotan. It should be added that all the principals involved act as well as sing, as if they thoroughly believed in the sometimes weird turns of events. Daniel Harding conducts the orchestra as though possessed, bringing out much of Weber’s often bizarre scoring details to tremendous effect.
 
The film was released in German cinemas in 2010, but it has taken three years to arrive on DVD. This is a great shame, because the director’s approach to the medium of opera is both interesting and deserving of support. Unusually for an opera on video, the Blu-Ray (and presumably the DVD) comes equipped with a full director’s commentary as well as extensive interviews with the cast. A number of important points emerge from these. In the first place, the singers comment on how much easier it was for them to ‘sink’ themselves in their roles when they were immersed in an environment of the period complete with the correct furniture and paintings - actors in film often make similar comments. They also tell us that this in turn completely transformed their interpretations of the music. In the second place, the director persistently makes the claim that he approached Hunter’s Bride as a film in its own right and not simply as a transfer of an opera to the screen. He cites his main influences as Carmen Jones, Bergman’s Magic Flute and Rossi’s Carmen, oddly enough all works which like Der Freischütz combine music with spoken dialogue. In other words, his approach is more akin to that of a Hollywood musical than simply that of an opera director transferring his work to film. In fact, this is a considerably more difficult task to bring off satisfactorily, as a great many filmed musicals will testify. The transition from speech to song and back again can bring an element of artificiality: “Why is this character suddenly singing?”. It is much to the credit of Jens Neubert and his cast that this awkward question never obtrudes here.
 
In fact Neubert states in his commentary that, if the production of Der Freischütz proves to be successful in cinemas, he would like to undertake similar work on further operas. One rather hopes that he will, because his imaginative but never iconoclastic approach could well breathe life into the world of increasingly stale operatic productions which depart further and further from the composer’s original intentions. He cites Walter Felsenstein, and his concern for ‘credibility’, as one of his models. One would love to see him tackle a major Wagnerian score in this manner. Neubert mentions his wish that the film should not only attract opera fans but also create new audiences for the medium; one wonders whether the adoption of the presumably more commercial title Hunter’s Bride might not put off the former who might be mystified by the change.
 
They should not be deterred. Despite some of the reservations which I have expressed, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance and presentation of Weber’s score. It’s streets ahead of any of its rivals. Yes, it is a film with a real dramatic impetus as well as being a superb rendition of the music. Those not wholly wedded to the realm of ‘concept opera’ will find it both a refreshing change, and a real and solid pointer to what could be a most interesting future for opera in the visual medium. Those who care about opera as a dramatic as well as a musical art should not let an imaginative venture like this fail for lack of proper support. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD release): Raymond Walker


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