Weber – Der Freischütz

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Weber
LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: Der Freischütz
PERFORMER: Inga Nielsen, Malin Hartelius, Matti Salminen, Peter Seiffert, László Polgár; Zurich Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt; dir. Ruth Berghaus (Zurich, 1999)
CATALOGUE NO: 107 011 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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Freischütz’s folk-Romantic diablerie seems to mortally offend today’s modernist opera producers, obliging them to sabotage it or camp it up. The late Ruth Berghaus, their doyenne, might therefore have been disappointed to find that her Zurich staging isn’t the most peculiar on DVD.

That distinction belongs to Arthaus Musik’s 1990s Hamburg production, rife with TV sets, sirens, lifts, disco lighting and the like; a close second comes Stuttgart’s, with everyone in shorts and bobby-sox and capering like unstrung Pinocchios.

Berghaus, comparatively restrained, merely over-stylizes the thing, the set a featureless box of yellow-green dung-coloured walls and blank black rostra, her cast uniformed in long black coats, dresses and jackboots like a Herr Flick convention, relieved only by the occasional silly hat.

The chorus march about in robotic files; principals, in silent-movie black-eye makeup, exaggerate their dialogue heavy-handedly. It’s not so terribly distorted, but it devitalizes Weber’s marvellously atmospheric score, the terrifying Wolf’s Glen reduced to a pyrotechnic puff, a mincing Samiel and a pack of cringing mimes.

A shame, because musically this isn’t bad. Harnoncourt conducts far more freely and atmospherically than in his metronomic CD version, and he has a decent cast, especially Peter Seiffert’s robustly tormented young hero and Malin Hartelius’s bouncy Aennchen.

Inga Nielsen is a rather worn Agathe, and Matti Salminen’s Caspar, like his Hagen, oafish rather than demonic, but László Polgár is a sonorous Hermit.

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Still, Weber is far better served by Arthaus’s other, 1960s Hamburg film, musically superb and, despite some cheesy production and hammy performances, dramatically much truer. Michael Scott Rohan