Opéra Comique, Paris, Friday April 15 2011
Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Production: Dan Jemmett. Sets: Dick Bird. Costumes: Sylvie Martin-Hyszka. Lighting: Arnaud Jung. Agathe: Sophie Karthäuser. Max: Andrew Kennedy. Annette: Virginie Pochon. Gaspard: Gidon Saks. Kouno: Matthew Brook. L’Ermite: Luc Bertin-Hugault. Kilian: Samuel Evans. Ottokar: Robert Davies. Samiel: Christian Pelissier. The Monteverdi Choir. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
There are fashions in music and opera, and though we all know it well from recordings, Freischütz has become a rarity in the theatre these days, perhaps because of the supernatural elements in the plot. In over thirty years of opera-going, I had previously seen it just once, in an amusing, over-the-top Okotoberfest kind of production at the Châtelet. The Opéra Comique, which gets better and better, has brought it back in a still rarer form, the French version prepared by Berlioz, with recitatives and a ballet (Invitation to the Dance). This sounds like it might be bizarre; but it turned out to be highly effective. With the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Sir John Eliot Gardiner in the pit as well, the venture shone a whole new light on the work and its context.
Musically speaking, it was the changes of balance that were most striking. I must admit, for a start, that I simply love the crunchy, compact sound of this orchestra; but beyond just “loving the noise it makes,” there’s a significant and highly satisfying change in the relationship between brass, woodwind and strings (and the singers), that would be easily grasped by comparing the famous hunting chorus by Friday’s team with Carlos Kleiber’s (great) recording – i.e. comparing a handful of natural horns, at once mellower and raspier and balanced with perky clarinets, with Dresden’s, presumably at least a dozen of them, presumably a semitone or so higher, blasting away brilliantly like a wall of flame; and just 16 men of the Monteverdi choir, shaping and nuancing their singing, barber-shop style, with however many were mustered in Dresden: an army it might seem, stomping their feet and slapping their thighs heartily, we imagine.
With forces like those, you need Heldentenors and Brünnhildes and the whole thing becomes (appropriately enough) a kind of shooting match between orchestra, chorus and soloists to see who can shine brightest and loudest. Gardiner’s cast were more modest – in “scale” as it were - but again the striking thing was balance, among the singers themselves and between them and the pit. There’s little to say about the soloists individually: the girls (with Agathe played particularly anxiously in this production and the ever-optimistic Annette constantly cheering her up) sang sweetly, the introspective Max sang valiantly (but on a Mozartian, not a Wagnerian scale), Gaspard (“les cheveux hagards, l’oeil hérissé” as Marie Dubas might have said) sang cavernously; and the Monteverdi Choir were just astonishingly good: accuracy, phrasing, dynamics, diction… a great luxury.
In various ways, the production was puzzling. It was set in the 30s – a marvellous array of convincing period costumes, wigs and make-up – but where? The Financial Times evoked Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. Others thought it was in pre-war France. Others still, like me, took note of the Tyrolean details on some of the costumes and supposed it was in Germany during the rise of Hitler, which gave it an appropriately sinister tinge. But if that was intentional, it was very subtly done: you might have expected the director to bring in an occasional swastika, but he didn’t. The villagers brought to my mind Nazi official painting of the Adolf Wissel, “farmer’s family” kind. But nothing else in the production confirmed any specific location and you were just left wondering – as you were also, in fact, left wondering what it brought to the work at all, apart from overall prettiness (“too decorative,” declared a friend).
Apart from the period, so skilfully recreated, the “concept” was a travelling fair. There was a single “main” set of receding arches of dark, panelled wood, lined with red and white light bulbs and, at the rear, a painted backdrop showing the wolf’s glen in full-blown, “sublime” romantic style. The opera opened on a shooting range at the fair. Kouno had a frogged, fairground jacket. Gaspard glowered. Samiel, a sinister Max Wall figure, bandy-legged in funereal black with long, grey hair peaked at the sides, lurked. Agathe and Annette lived in a large caravan, seen first from outside, later inside with elaborate, “gypsy” rococo panels. For the wolf’s glen scene, the main set went dark, tree trunks (or were they giant rose stems? They had thorns) rose through trap doors and dropped from above, Gaspard appeared through the floor looking wild, and the red lights flashed dramatically. The chorus themselves did the ballet, a kind of country dance to welcome the prince – or as the FT critic put it, the production forced “the hapless chorus (the Monteverdi choir, in glorious voice, as ever, but somewhat stiff of limb) into a side-splitting ballet mixing semaphore and disco.” The acting was so-so, at times verging on twee (the bridesmaids' mimsying around with veils), and the director only half succeeded in handling the superstitions and supernatural oddities of the plot convincingly.
But though you couldn’t see what it was getting at, if anything at all, it was handsome and colourful and nicely lit and did no actual harm. With such excellent music and music-making, it made for an agreeably old-fashioned, intellectually undemanding evening of opera. As my neighbour said, as we left: “J’ai passé un bon moment.”