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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (1821)
Ottokar – Michael Kraus (bass)
Kuno/Samiel’s voice – Frank van Hove (baritone)
Agathe – Julia Kleiter (soprano)
Ännchen – Eva Liebau (soprano)
Kaspar – Günther Groissböck (bass-baritone)
Max – Michael König (tenor)
Hermit – Stephen Milling (bass)
Kilian – Till von Orlowsky (tenor)
Coro e orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Myung-Whun Chung
Stage direction by Matthias Hartmann
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 13 & 17 October 2017
NAXOS Blu-Ray NBD0092V [135 mins]

Goodness, but Der Freischütz is a problematic opera for today! You can’t ignore it because it’s instrumental in the development of German musical Romanticism; several scholars would even call it its progenitor. Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Strauss would have been unthinkable without it, and even Beethoven, who was no friend of Weber’s, was impressed. However, it poses an all but insoluble problem in staging it for modern audiences. Its setting is so grounded in the Romantic German Forest that any attempts to remove it from there or to update its setting invariably fall flat or seem reductive (or simply indulgent). However, staging it in its original setting risks seeming like a parody of blood-and-soil National Socialism. This dilemma means that, more often than not, it’s one of those works where you’re far better to retreat into the pictures of your own mind’s eye, and happily we have lots of good CD recordings to help us do that, most notably those from Keilberth, Kleiber, Harnoncourt and Davis.

This 2017 La Scala production is a game-changer, however, and it does the best job I’ve yet seen of putting the opera on stage in a way that is neither daft nor wilfully obstructive. Matthias Hartmann goes for a mixture of the specific and the abstract. There are plenty of trees to put us in the forest, but well-placed strips of lighting suggest the church, the hut and the mountainscape behind. The costumes are a quirky mix of national dresses – ranging from Scotland to the Balkans – but, more importantly, Hartmann also gets into the work’s dark psychological possibilities, wondering whether Max’s obsession with the magic bullets is a mirror for his wider insecurities. He doesn’t shun the supernatural, however: various devils appear to direct Kaspar’s actions, and occasionally we see demonic creatures that might have been lifted out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Importantly, this eclecticism works. It poses many questions and gives every facet of the opera its due without getting trapped in any of them, and that alone makes this the opera’s most successful outing on film to date.

The musical performances are excellent too. Who would have thought that the La Scala orchestra would be so good at this cornerstone of the German repertoire? Their playing of the overture is one of the best you’ll hear, with dark, suggestive strings at the opening, a heart-stopping quartet of horns, and a crackling sense of drama in the main Allegro. Myung-Whun Chung is a natural with the whole score, too, shaping the unfolding drama with an unfailingly right sense of where it is going and how it is going to get there.

The singers are top-notch. Julia Kleiter is radiant, luxuriously beautiful in her two big arias without a hint of simpering, and Eva Liebau’s Ännchen is a delightfully light-hearted contrast. Both are fully comfortable in the tessitura and are a joy to listen to as well as to watch. Michael König has a tiny touch of abrasion in his Heldentenor voice, but I could forgive him for his heroic tone, and Stephen Milling does a wonderful deus ex machina as the Hermit. Best of all, though, is Günther Groissböck, whose Kaspar sets the stage alight, almost literally so in the Wolf’s Glen scene. He’s a powerhouse to watch, and he uses his big bass voice with agility and athleticism to bring the part to life.

I approached this with a good degree of scepticism, but I found it completely compelling and was totally won over. To my great surprise, it solves the problems of staging Der Freischütz for our time. With its compelling production and its brilliant musicianship, it is now a clear first choice for Der Freischütz on film, and it’s by some margin the best opera film I’ve seen in 2019 so far.

Simon Thompson

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