Tonight I attended the dress rehearsal of the Opera Atelier production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Elgin Theatre, a moment I’d been eagerly anticipating for weeks.
Coming into the evening I was certain we’d have at least a memorable evening on the musical side, under the sparkling musicianship of conductor David Fallis, Tafelmusik Orchestra & chorus, and several remarkable soloists. But all aspects of the mise-en-scène and direction, in combination with that musical performance make this my operatic highlight of the fall season so far. Freischütz hits the target without any supernatural assistance.
I listened, hoping Fallis can be considered in the search for a successor to Jeanne Lamon. While Tafelmusik has been a baroque orchestra, I am most interested in their incursions into the 19th century, thrilled when they played the Eroica along with the Italian Symphony a few months ago. Back in the late 1980s I eagerly devoured period performances not only of Mozart & Beethoven, but especially Berlioz, Schumann, Schubert, even (more recently) Norrington’s Smetana & Wagner. I can’t help hearing this very courageous performance as a step in that direction.
Fallis does several very original things, as far as I could hear, having heard more conventional recordings of this opera: that is, with modern orchestra & modern performance conventions. I’m eager to hear it again Saturday night. Once more (as last season) Fallis showed his astonishing sensitivity, getting the orchestra to play quietly in a dress rehearsal, while most of the cast marked, yet were never covered. It’s a brand-new way of hearing Weber, with drama coming out of silences and quiet phrases, as in the vivace C-minor second subject of the overture. The orchestra is smallish, which I understand from the interview Fallis gave is accurate. Instead of the 20th century tendency of wagnerizing (that is, using an overlarge orchestra, as for example, in Beecham’s Handel, or just about everyone’s Mozart & Beethoven), this is a retu
rn to first principles.
On the stage –in Gerard Gauci’s set design & Martha Mann’s costumes—there’s a parallel to Fallis’s sound. For me this is a very thoughtful reading of the story. Gauci speaks of Fuseli as an influence, the painter of dreams & nightmares. This version of the romantic sublime is neo-classical, poised on the transition from the earlier century, and very much in control of itself. This is not a headlong rush, but more the thoughtful sensibility of “Oh Freunde, nicht diese tone,” as Beethoven changes the emotional channel consciously and mindfully.
Bellwether of this sanity is the Ännchen of Carla Huhtanen. Where Max & Agathe face the perils of the romantic imagination, the terrors in dreams & in the wolf’s glen, Marshall Pynkoski encourages Huhtanen to play up the comedy of Agathe’s comic foil, in a portrayal of exquisite energy & musicianship. As with the Don Giovanni last year, Pynkoski pushes Der Freischütz in the direction of a pastoral comedy, an approach that’s fully supported by the text. Pynkoski doesn’t negate the supernatural elements, so much as balance them. Kaspar, who is often-times played as a melodramatic villain, the tempter figure who lures Max astray with the magic bullets, also has some comic edge, in a wonderfully flexible interpretation by Vasil Garvanliev, at times reminding me of a Shakespearean clown, often over the top.
As the first foray of this company into a new century & an entirely new style & sensibility, it’s only reasonable that there would be hits and misses, and that some moments seemed better than others. But I prefer not to dwell on anything negative when this was merely the dress rehearsal after all.
I am again looking forward to hearing a full-voiced performance from Kresimir Spicer, after having admired his work in a dress rehearsal. As exquisite as he was in La Clemenza di Tito last season, he’s taken a big step undertaking a role usually understood as being on the verge of a helden role: at least when the orchestra is conventionally fat & wagnerian. Again, Fallis deserves enormous credit, holding the orchestra back when necessary, giving them a supple energy that was occasionally turned loose in a few key places. Meghan Lindsay’s Agathe is also lighter than what one gets in a big house with a big loud orchestra; but this combination is so much better, and I daresay, so much truer to Weber. It feels transitional, with voices that could have stepped out of Magic Flute or Fidelio as done in a small house (speaking of operas that I’d love to hear undertaken by Opera Atelier, Spicer & Fallis).
Which brings me to the Wolf’s Glen Scene, the dark romantic core of the work. I’m a believer in “less is more”: a principle that has usually stood OA in good stead. Much of this scene is wonderful, a few moments giving me goose-bumps and shivers (although much of that came from the music). I don’t want to give anything away for those who will see it, as some of the images get their power from the element of surprise. I am grateful that a work with a strongly religious sentiment at its core was permitted to work in the usual ways. Some of the dance works very well for me, even though I was resisting it, to be honest.
I think it’s time for Pynkoski to take ownership of his original brilliance, this idiom he’s made combining historicity (that is, a delicious awareness of history), some elements derived from research, and a few other elements that don’t have much to do with an authentic or historically informed performance. But that’s okay! I regret that the focus on the HIP seems to shove Pynkoski’s sensibility aside, giving him no real credit for what he does: such as his wonderfully droll takes on Ännchen & Kaspar. I used to joke that Opera Atelier is a dance company pretending to be an opera company, and the joke came back full force watching the Wolf’s Glen Scene. But it works. Let’s admit, then, that what we’re often watching are the interpretive choices of Marshall & Jeannette –often stunning & inspired choices—rather than hiding behind the whole canard of history and authenticity. There’s nothing very authentic about using so much dance in Act II of Der Freischütz; but even so it’s often very powerful and effective.
Opera Atelier’s production of Der Freischütz opens Saturday night October 27th at the Elgin Theatre.