Almanac

Arts & Entertainment - February 24, 2010

Review: 'Der Freischutz' proves a challenge to West Bay Opera and its audiences

by Mort Levine

It was immediately acclaimed in Germany as the prototypical nationalistic opera and the launching of early romanticism with its magical settings and battles between good and evil. "Der Freischutz" is still the most performed German opera in Germany after "The "Magic Flute." Despite its remarkably gorgeous music, it has almost always baffled American audiences. The full house at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto at last Friday's opening of West Bay Opera's ambitious production of Carl Maria von Weber's masterpiece seemed similarly baffled.

WBO produced this opera in 1990 in a conventional setting of the 15th-century legend of Bohemian foresters and the contract with the devil for six bullets that will always find their target but a seventh that the devil will direct. In this case, that last shot would kill the hunter-hero's bride-to-be. Given the need for a happy ending, a holy hermit restores her to life in the name of the Almighty. If it sounds a bit like a Grimm fairy tale, you're right. It all springs from the same kind of folklore with a hard core of violence and suspense.

The 2010 version is a creative collaboration between General Director Jose Luis Moscovich, who also conducted, and stage director Yuval Sharon, who has been hailed for his many imaginative stagings in New York. This production was replete with unique effects in a wide range of media. For example, the opera is preceded by a brief film clip from a Lon Chaney Jr. horror picture. Chaney turns himself into a ferocious killer werewolf. His doctor, played by Claude Rains, says he doesn't believe in such a transformation but agrees it could strongly take hold in the mind of the perpetrator. Cut to live action.

As the opera's richly diverse overture music is performed, a modern ballet treatment choreographed by Yannis Adoniou and the Kunst-Stoff dance company goes forth behind a scrim where other projections flicker. This is followed by the lowering of a series of fences, behind which is a chorus. Each member is wearing an animal mask raised slightly to permit the singing of a happy, toe-tapping tune. Gaps in the fence later are used by black-clad arms reaching out to envelop our hero.

These rapid-fire disconnects are followed by recitations (brief speeches in German to move the tale along) from the principal lead singers. The protagonist, Max, must demonstrate some outstanding rifle shooting in the presence of the local prince, if he is to win Agathe, the daughter of the head forest ranger, Kuno.

Lately Max's shots all seem to miss. A rival hunter, Kaspar, had earlier made a pact with the devil, trading his soul for the secret of making magic bullets. He hopes to trade Max for himself in the pact. Failing in that, the villainous Kaspar is shot and thrown to the wolves by order of the prince.

Two of the lead singers, tenor Ben Bongers who sings Max and bass Gregory Stapp, the rescuing hermit, both sang but asked audience consideration for their colds. Stapp seemed to overcome that handicap in his shorter role. But the tenor's hoarseness and difficulties with higher ranges were apparent.

The female voices, by contrast, were outstanding. Agathe, performed by Paula Goodman Wilder, who has a creamy coloratura, came close to perfection with "Leise, Leise" (... though clouds obscure, still shines the sun ...). Her cousin, Annchen, sung by Patrycja Paluchovitz, also was in fine voice especially in duets with Agathe.

In supporting roles, such as Kuno (Eric Coyne), and Prince Ottokar (David Hodgson), the voices seemed to have a volume difficulty in ensemble passages and when aligned with the full-throated choral singing.

"Der Freischutz" is clearly an opera where the orchestra is a full partner. Maestro Moscovich's brisk baton kept his 24-member orchestral force on pace. On a few occasions, there was evidence that additional strings and woodwinds would be a benefit. The complex score was treated as a large-scale chamber music piece. Weber is acknowledged as a master of orchestral writing and the range of mood changes showed the music could well carry the opera.

Richard Wagner, who lived a generation after Weber, hailed the music of "Der Freischutz." He wrote: "Weber breathed a fresh warm lovely life into music of the stage ... touched the heart of the German people celebrating the imaginative life of the German nation at its most characteristic."

The performance in Palo Alto didn't quite strike its local audience in that same way. Nonetheless, despite the directorial overkill with special effects, the eerie lighting treatments and the host of symbolic touches, in the end it is the music that makes most of the magic. The great choral music and many satisfying arias are well worth enjoying for their own sake.

"Der Freischutz" goes forth this coming weekend with performances on Saturday evening and at a Sunday matinee.

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