Carl Maria von Weber/Hector Berlioz: Le Freyschutz (1841)

Opera romantique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

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This is not the singspiel that started it all, although it has basically the same plot, overture, and musical numbers. Berlioz’s 1841 revision of Weber’s score, translated into French with sung recitatives replacing the original spoken dialogue, is not quite the same, for instance the four minute scene that started the original third act doesn’t exist here, the second act is actually slightly longer, whereas the third is a bit shorter than the original. The first act is about the same. In some French 19th century productions the hermit was completely cut, providing the opera with a totally happy ending rather than the delayed one. Samiel is performed by a bass, although the role is about as small as the originally spoken part. The review is of the 1999 studio recording with Jean-Paul Penin conducting the Philharmonie de Chambre Hongroise.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: In front of an inn in the forest. (43 minutes)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2X3V7cQp8IY

0, 12: Roi de par ma carabine The overture * (I’m sticking with Forman’s appraisal here) starts sort of eery-ish before turning to some nice horn dominated work and then more eery strings and then some Beethoven fury (horns prominent, repeated). Apparently the key of the piece fluctuates between C minor (representing evil) and C major (representing good). There is a sudden bang (a diminished seventh chord of F#, A, C, and Eb which represents Samiel), but that isn’t the end of the overture because we get this happy waltz thing which scampers away into a finale. Although it has some very strong themes, it lacks total cohesion and by the end it seems like Weber has lost his marbles. This goes almost immediately into a mild victory chorus while the first free-shooting contest takes place, followed by some fiddling (?) and then what I can only describe as an annoying “haha” chorus which is actually a couplet for the wealthy peasant Killian as he torments Max for being such a lousy shot *. This is important because Max is supposed to show off his shooting abilities the following day before the Prince so that he can marry Agathe, the daughter of Kuno, the royal forester, and inherit his office, but Killian has won at the trials.

18, 20, 23: A quel nuage/Agathe, o mon ame/Quel l’agile, errant dans l’espace Max is very depressed *, has no hope of shooting well enough tomorrow to be found worthy of Agathe. The chorus breaks into a hymn-like melody you will recognize from the overture *, followed by some chorus-hunting horn action *.

24: A dance *, bouncy and as Forman termed it “a very Tyrolean waltz”. It disappears without formally finishing.

27: Ah, trop longtemps/Un noir esprit Max’s two arias, the first on the happy past *. At first simplistic, it turns to an andante and then finally to an allegro as the Beethoven stuff from the overture pops in again **.

33: Dans la joie et les plaisir! Kaspar’s savage drinking song *, rather abusive to the poor piccolo player as well. He tells Max that his gun is bewitched and only magical bullets from the demon Samiel can make him a great shot the following day. Max really isn’t liking what he is hearing but Kaspar shoots a bird from high up that had escaped the competitors earlier.

40: Esprits des tenebres After Kaspar blackmails Max into promising to go to the scary demon hang-out the Wolf’s Glen by claiming that unless he does so Max’s fiancee Agathe (the daughter of Kuno) will suddenly die (why exactly? because he was a rejected suitor of her’s), he laughs at how Max will be the demon Samiel’s next victim instead of him in an aria that really does do much to finish the act *. Rather underwhelming actually.

ACT 2: (46.5 minutes)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdEciLeS-p8

Scene 1: A room in Kuno’s house.

5: Ou’un garçon jeune et candide The act begins with a musically uninteresting duet for Agathe and her cousin Annette as the latter hammers in a nail and the former worries about fiance Max. Apparently Agathe has met with a strange monk in the forest who has told her that her bridal wreath will protect her from some sort of misfortune (foreshadowing). Things lighten up a little when Annette expresses her thoughts on love and marriage in a cute little aria **. Apparently, because this is opera and we need some foreshadowing, at the exact moment Gaspar shot the bird in the previous act, the portrait of one of Kuno’s ancestors fell off the wall and struck Agathe, injuring her.

11:  Sans le revoir encore Agathe’s aria ***. She can’t sleep, waits for Max, a storm comes and goes, Max finally arrives. Musically it is lovely.

23: Non! Non, de grace! The farewell trio **. The girls beg him to stay, he says he has to fetch a deer he shot in the Wolf’s Glen (likely story). They say good-bye once (false alarm), second time for real.

Scene 2: The Wolf’s Glen.

29: L’herbe tombe en palissant As Forman termed it “One of Opera’s truly spooky scenes *”. The female choristers really make it creepy with their “HOOY”‘s.

32: Samiel, Samiel! The dialogue between Kaspar and the scary basso-profundo Samiel *. Not being a spoken role anymore, it is far more effective than the rather weird spoken role of the German original. Kaspar and he go into some creepy details about how the former has promised the latter an annual human sacrifice in exchange for six magic bullets and yes, the SEVENTH IS SAMIEL’S! (Insert horror movie laughter). Kaspar wants to kill off Agathe, not Max, so that way both Max and her father Kuno will despair and become the second and third sacrifices so Kaspar can buy three more years and Samiel will get his demonic human sacrifice, but Samiel warns that she is not within his power (too pure and innocent my guess?). Max arrives having been warned by the ghost of his mother as well as a vision of a dead Agathe which is pulling him in multiple directions, Kaspar goes over the ingredients of the bullets before placing them in some molds (glass from a church window, mercury, lead, the eyes of a lynx and rooster) in a rather creepy sung speech which eventually gets some instrumental accompaniment.

43: Un! The casting of the bullets occurs to orchestral accompaniment which increases in intensity as each is produced ***. Between the casting of the sixth and seven all hell breaks loose (rather literally) to the Beethoven theme from the overture as the forces of darkness descend upon the scene and Samiel finally makes his physical appearance. Then, a distant church bell rings one in the morning. Abrupt fade out.

ACT 3: (39.5 minutes)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7shm7b3nQKQ

Scene 1: Same as Act 2 Scene 1.

0: En vain du ciel Agathe greets the sun on her wedding day ***.

7: Un soir defunte ma grand tante Annette tries to cheer up her cousin (it is HER wedding day after all) with an idiotic song about her great-aunt’s pet Nero, the ghost dog (I can’t make stuff like this up!)  which is saved from dullness by a beguiling viola solo accompaniment *. Apparently this was written for the singer who originated the role at the premiere and was not part of the original concept of the opera.

14: Nos mains tressaient A chorus of maidens arrives to take Agathe to the fairground for the wedding * but when she opens the box containing what she assumes is her wedding wreath, it is actually a funeral wreath (foreshadowing). She makes a new one with some blessed white roses and goes.

Scene 2: A fairground.

18, 22, 30, 32, 36: Plaisir de la chasse/C’est moi la colombe/Helas, la crainte reticent ma plainte/Ah, quell ardeur/Mon coeur sera toujours fidele Very German hunting horns ** as the hunters sing a jolly chorus. Max is about to perform his trial shot and the Prince (who we have not seen before) chooses a white dove as a target. Max shoots only to realize just after the shot has been fired that the “white dove” was actually an ornament on Agathe’s wedding wreath *. She passes out, but although the ornament was hit it deflected the bullet which then hit Gaspar, mortally wounding him. Agathe revives very much alive, but Gaspar curses Samiel as he dies. Max is commanded to reveal what has just happened and he confesses the pact with demonic forces. The Prince banishes him, but Max pleads his case to a bassoon accompaniment *. So do all the people. Agathe is really depressed. The monk arrives and declares a softer sentence *, Max shall be banished, but for one year, and if by the end of that year he has succeeded in proving himself worthy of Agathe he will marry her. The final sextet ** which is just a joy after all the drama. Not great, but happy.

COMMENTS:

I must admit, I’ve always found Der Freischutz to be one of the most overrated operas in the repertoire. I’m not really attracted to Weber to begin with as my reviews of Oberon and Euryanthe probably indicate because I just find him so disinteresting (beyond spurts of grandeur which are derivative of Beethoven and the occasional aria), but I do understand why this opera is so famous even if it really doesn’t do much for me musically.  Der Freischutz, the German singspiel not so much its French incarnation here, encapsulates basically all of Germanness within itself in a way only Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel and the mature works of Wagner were later able to recapture. What constitutes Germanness? A preoccupation with physical nature, the supernatural (especially the Satanic), Medievalist romantic folklore, and folk custom. This opera has all of that. The setting for most of the opera explores the natural world through the lens of German folk tradition and much of the music is based on German folk tunes. The setting, although not exactly Medieval, is early-modern (at the end of the Thirty-Years War so about 1649?). The Satanic plays a much larger role in German culture than probably any other in Europe, at least Western Europe, what with its Faust legends, cannibal witches, deadly Loreleys, and vain sorceress step-mothers, and just an overall preoccupation with the demonic and making theologically impossible pacts with the Devil.  Der Freischutz is a German nationalistic answer to the then universal domination of Italian and French opera; certainly the Wolf’s Glen scene could never have been written by an Italian, just saying. The plot, such as it is, is rather boring apart from the spooky demonic stuff (the two ladies in particular could have been very annoying had Weber not given them the best music in the entire piece because their contribution to the plot goes beyond inanity).  The demonic elements are slightly made laughable by Samiel’s constant insistence about six bullets going to you, BUT THE SEVENTH IS MINE! BOO-HA-HA! One can tell from Gaspar’s response that this has become somewhat annoying old hat by now. The individual scenes tend to end in fade outs which might seem odd to someone used to traditional battery chord endings. I will say one thing for the opera, it isn’t so long as to outstay its welcome. The vocal distribution is extremely dark: three basses, three baritones, a lone tenor and two sopranos. But on the other hand, we do get some lovely solo accompaniments for cello, viola, clarinet, bassoon, in places. Oh, and one other thing, Berlioz’s recitatives capture Weber’s atmosphere perfectly, they actually make it seem dumb to perform the thing with spoken dialogue! One would never guess that he only wrote them because he was afraid of someone doing a screwed up job of them because he wanted to be faithful to Weber’s memory. Although I am inclined to rate it a beta out of sheer personal disinterest, it is a popular alpha.

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