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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
The Freischütz Project
Der Freischütz (1817-21) (excerpts)
Libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind (after August Apel’s tale of the same name)
Max - Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Agathe - Johanni Van Oostrum; Ännchen - Chiara Skerath; Kaspar - Vladimir Baykov; Eremit & Samiel - Christian Immler; Kuno - Thorsten Grümbel; Kilian - Anas Séguin
Accentus Choir
Insula orchestra/Laurence Equilbey
rec. live 17, 21, 23 October 2019, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
ERATO 9029510954 [1:19:28]

Der Freischütz has been recorded with luxury casts and conductors, but conductor Laurence Equilbey is the first to present Carl Maria von Weber’s opera using the principles and original instruments of historically informed performance. This is only the greatest hits of the opera, however, rather the full work, but still amounts to well over an hour of Weber’s delightful music to savor as it’s never been heard before.

The opera marks a break with Rossini and the Italian opera tradition and the beginning of German nationalism in music. A triumph at its 1821 premiere in Berlin, Der Freischütz is heralded as one of first romantic operas. Weber instilled it with ingredients that have insured its popularity in German-speaking countries, if rather less so elsewhere.

In the opera, Max has to win a shooting match to succeed her father as head forester and win the hand of his daughter Agathe in marriage. His confidence shaken, the young man resorts to dark magic to win his beloved. He is goaded on by his colleague Kaspar, who has sold himself to Samiel, the Black Huntsman, but wants out of the deal and is eager to swap Max’s soul for his. Seven magic bullets are cast, with one reserved for the devil. The shooting competition goes wildly amiss, but ultimately evil is vanquished and love triumphs.

The score is replete with melodies familiar to opera and concert goers alike as its popular overture overflows with them. In addition to a colorful score inspired by German folk song, Weber captured the supernatural in music. The Wolf’s Glen scene contains musical effects that depict horrors ranging from terrifying natural phenomena to the devil. It’s a challenging scene to stage, but thrilling to listen to.

Equilbey’s approach makes this colorful, atmospheric music come alive. Weber called for an orchestra consisting of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. These are the sounds that become more pungent, piercing and sinewy when played on period instruments. With no loss of character or depth, original instruments also lend greater clarity to the musical texture and sound.

The overture vividly depicts the two conflicting themes of the opera: the life of the hunter represented in the horn quartet and the devil captured in the low registers of the strings, clarinets and bassoons. The entire orchestra is excellent, but it is the burnished, robust sound of the horns that transports you to the depths of a primeval forest where danger lurks. Two other particularly beautiful passages are the trumpet solo that begins ‘Schelm, halt' fest' and the exquisite cello playing in 'Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’.

It is not only the instrumental sonorities that heighten the drama, but also the articulation, phrasing and bounce that Equilbey draws from the chorus and orchestra. This comes as no surprise as both the Accents Choir and Insula orchestra were founded by Equilbey and are well-versed in the stylistic demands of the Classical to the early Romantic eras; Mozart, Schubert and Weber form the core of its repertoire. For this recording, the Insula orchestra is joined by the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Rouen Normandie.

The cast was assembled with equal care. Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac brings virility and heroism to Max. Even though his voice has gained dramatic thrust over the years, it remains a lyrical instrument of great beauty. De Barbeyrac gave an impassioned account of Max’s Act I aria, 'Nein, länger trag' ich nicht die Qualen' - 'Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen’, which requires both qualities.

Soprano Johanni Van Oostrum is in radiant voice as Agathe. Bold and forthright, with gleaming tone, Van Oostrum based through Agathe’s great arias with ease, although the more delicate sentiments and lilting melodies of ‘Leise, leise’ reveal an equally intriguing, albeit more intimate and charming aspect of the soprano’s lovely voice.

As Ännchen, soprano Chiara Skerath is no mere fluttery soubrette, but real flesh and blood with a voice to match. Vladimir Baykov’s bass is dark, powerful and cavernous. In Kaspar’s aria 'Schweig, schweig, damit dich niemand warnt!’, Baykov seethed with malevolence.

This recording is just a teaser of course, making one rue missing the staged performances of this production that originated at the Opéra de Rouen Normandie in 2019.

Rick Perdian

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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