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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz, Opera in three acts with libretto by Friedrich Kind (1821)
(Original dialogue replaced by narration)
Lise Davidsen, Agathe (soprano)
Andreas Schager, Max (tenor)
Sofia Fomina, Aennchen (soprano)
Alan Held, Caspar (bass-baritone)
Franz-Josef Selig, Hermit (bass)
Andreas Bauer, Cuno (bass)
Corinna Kirchhoff (Samiel and narrator)
Peter Simonischek (Hermit narrator)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
German text and English translation included
rec. 2018, HR-Sendesaal, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany
PENTATONE PTC5186788 SACD [77:01+38:51]

Der Freischütz is the first great German romantic opera, full of delightful music, but it seems to have fallen out of favour in the UK. I do not think there has been a stage production here for at least thirty years, so we depend more than usually on recordings to get to know it. I learned it from the excellent Keilberth version, which dates from 1958, and, though in stereo, probably now counts as historic. There have been several since, including a famous but controversial one by Carlos Kleiber, one by Harnoncourt, two by Colin Davis, and one by Bruno Weil. There also isJanowski’s own previous recording from 1994. None of these has swept the board, so a new version is very welcome.

The presiding spirit here is very much Janowski. He is thoroughly immersed in the idiom. He has recorded not only this work but Weber’s other operas, and all the mature Wagner operas, some of them more than once. Wagner greatly admired Der Freischütz and was considerably influenced by it, to the extent that, for those who know their Wagner, the more sinister passages in Weber’s opera tend to sound Wagnerian rather than the other way round.

Janowski does not use period instruments (Bruno Weil is the only one so far to do so), but he has persuaded his players to play in period style, so the balance between wind and string, the use of light and shade, and the stabbing qualities of the brass are all in evidence. The Frankfurt orchestra, though not an opera orchestra, sound very happy with him and their work.

The cast is strong. Pentatone have made a coup in securing the rising star Lise Davidsen for Agathe’s role. Her rich, full and flexible voice is a pleasure to listen to, and she has a fine grasp of the part. Her Max is Andreas Schager, a real Heldentenor who has sung all the big Wagnerian tenor roles. This is a more lyrical role, but he handles it well, and creates a real personality out of the unstable and easily tempted Max. Sofia Formina is a sparky Aennchen, her voice well contrasted with Davidsen’s in their duets. Alan Held is sonorous and impressive as the villain Caspar. The smaller roles are well taken. The chorus, from Leipzig not Frankfurt, is in good heart and sings well.

So far so good, but I have a major reservation. Der Freischütz is a singspiel, an opera with spoken dialogue. There are three ways of handling this. The best is for the singers to speak their dialogue, as they would in a stage production. The dialogue may be slightly trimmed, if necessary, but certainly should not be cut to ribbons, as sometimes happens. In recordings, the singers are sometimes replaced by professional actors for the spoken parts. In my view, this rarely works because the voices do not match. Finally, and worst of all, the dialogue is cut and replaced by a narration. This ruins the dramatic illusion, and turns the work into a kind of oratorio.

That is what has happened here. Instead of the dialogue we have a narration, written by Katharina Wagner and Daniel Weber. This is divided between two speakers, Peter Simonischek in the character of the hermit, and Corinna Kirchoff in the character of Samiel, the black huntsman and a surrogate for the devil. Not only does it seem absurd to cast a woman in this role, but she begins her part with a manic cackle which makes the heart sink. She gets better later, but the whole idea seems flawed to me. I do not see anything wrong with the original dialogue.

The recording is on SACD, but I was listening to the stereo version and was well satisfied with the sound and the balance between singers and orchestra. The booklet contains an introduction and the full text as performed, with the narration, but no biographies of the performers. The whole comes in a handsome box. I would happily give this a strong recommendation but for that narration.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Michael Cookson

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