When doves cry

Weber's Der Freischütz soars musically but suffers visually.

Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischtz is one of those masterpieces more often referred to than heard. It's unquestionably a milestone in music history, a harbinger of a century of romanticism, but it presents staging challenges that few opera houses are willing to take on. Even though it finds a performance once in a generation, roughly, I've adored the piece for 20 years. Seattle Opera's new production, which opened last Thursday, is my first live glimpse.

Der Freischtz

Opera House through August 21

The problems begin when the curtain rises. Visually, this Freischtz is a near- disaster. The set for Acts 1 and 3 consist of a clumsily large, square wooden platform covering most of the stage, unadorned except for one post sticking up from the center—which looks like an eight-foot version of a Tootsie-Pop stick. A curtain of knotted rope—blocking our view of the pretty Caspar Friedrich-inspired painted backdrops—hangs behind this. This inexplicable curtain is useless, obtrusive (singers entering or exiting the stage had to fight their way through it), and butt-ugly besides. Three strikes.

This stylized set contrasts strangely with the costumes, quaintly traditional, operetta-ish affairs (two perky feathers in every hat) seemingly borrowed from the Ruritanian cavalry. It's intended to represent a meadow or village green where a shooting contest is taking place—a contest that our hero Max must win to earn the hand of his beloved Agathe. In Act 2, Max is lured by villain Caspar to the unholy Wolf's Glen to cast magic bullets.

This scene, the toughest in the opera to stage, was the most effective. The libretto calls for some over-the-top effects—apparitions (ghostly huntsmen, a rampaging wild boar) that appear as each bullet is cast. Director Dieter Kaegi's substitutions were ingenious: dancers, five leaping Beetlejuices representing evil spirits, and dozens of lurid red hands (with invisible black-clad people attached) to creep like insects and spark like tiny flames. With the ropes clumped together to make gnarled tree trunks and plenty of dry ice, the creepiness factor nearly reached the level of Weber's gruesome score.

We have also to thank bass Harry Peeters for the power of that scene, as he played Caspar beautifully with a booming voice and sinister grandeur. Deborah Voigt made her Seattle Opera debut as a fine Agathe, most impressive in her Act 3 adagio prayer "Und ob die Wolke," in which she unleashed her full diva tone and still kept the mood intimate. Agathe's kind of colorless—okay, a pious drip—on the page, but Voigt brought her both gravity and likability. Her opulent voice made a great pairing with the lighter tone of Ute Selbig as her lively cousin/sidekick Įnchen, who was thoroughly charming in her solos.

Max is a tricky role; his keynote is frustration, an emotion not well suited to operatic treatment. Tenor Gary Lakes' forte is lyricism, and the gentle opening of his Act 1 aria "Durch die W䬤er," a moment of wistful reminiscence, showed him off well. Conveying any deeper psychological struggle was beyond his capabilities, and he sounded vocally unsure (which is not at all the same thing as sounding emotionally unsure) in the dramatic passage that closed that aria. (An unbelievable costume was foisted on poor Lakes in the opera's finale, a scarlet tailcoat and foot-high top hat that made him look like a big june bug. (For this costume and the rope curtain, there's a display case reserved in the Seattle Opera Hall of Shame, right next to where the bodybuilder chorus line from last summer's Tristan performs twice nightly.) Freischtz is a fantastic choral opera, with goosebump-raising moments in all three acts, and the Seattle Opera Chorus, prepared by George Fiore, sounded like a million bucks. They're great to watch, too; the small ensemble of bridesmaids got two delicious sight gags. (Despite its supernatural chills, the opera's far from devoid of comic relief and joyous outbursts; Weber even spoofs himself in Įnchen's shaggy-dog aria in Act 3). The whole cast handled the German dialogue comfortably, transitioning from speech to song without a bit of awkwardness. Most of this was cut from the original version, with just enough retained to keep the plot clear.

The real magic of this production, the ravishing German-sylvan atmosphere, was in the pit, with Gerard Schwarz at the helm. Weber's genius came through; but without help from the visuals, it's unlikely this production will win any new Freischtz fans. And that's a shame, because we'll have to wait all the longer for a revival. I wanted to stand outside the Opera House afterward, grab each departing audience member by the arm and shout, "No, it's a masterpiece, really it is!"

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