The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is no stranger to Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. Vincent d’Indy conducted it in October 1913, during its second season. The theatre is no stranger to scandal either. Within two months of its opening, the venue staged the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps, which caused a riot from outraged audience members. Although the production team received a few hearty boos at the curtain call, Raphaël Navarro and Clément Debailleul’s insipid new production of Freischütz was never going to provoke a riot on the Avenue Montaigne. It merely induced a sense of apathy.

Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar) © Julien Benamou
Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar)
© Julien Benamou

Created in 2001, Compagnie 14:20 places magic at the heart of its theatre, which would seem to suit Weber’s supernatural opera about the forester Max, who’s lost his sharp-shooting form, thus jeopardising his chances of winning Agathe’s hand in the trial shot the next day. Max is tempted over to the dark side by his sinister colleague Kaspar, who summons Samiel, the Black Hunter, during a midnight assignation at the Wolf’s Glen. Seven magic bullets are forged which will guarantee victory in the shoot. Little does Max know, the seventh bullet is controlled by Samiel himself and is destined for Max’s bride.

On paper, it looked promising, but there were too few moments of frisson in Cie 14:20’s staging. Dancer Clément Dazin represented Samiel with sinuous movement, sometimes aerial thanks to wire-flying, and juggling bulbs as fireflies or will-o’-the-wisps. Video footage via hand-held camera took us into woodland glades during the overture and the portrait of Kuno, that falls off the wall to give Agathe a nasty bump on the head, is a Hogwarts-esque animation, reacting to events with comic effect.

Clément Dazin (Samiel) © Julien Benhamou
Clément Dazin (Samiel)
© Julien Benhamou

The Wolf’s Glen scene should be meat and drink to directors with Cie 14:20’s box of tricks, but aside from the bullets being represented by glowing bulbs, there was nothing spooky about Max and Kaspar’s trip to the woods. Owls, black boars, baying hounds, whinnying steeds, ghostly hunters, stags? Nope. Just abstract video flashes. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. The depiction of a torrential downpour and flooding river during the closing hymn of praise was marvellous, but it was too little, too late. To make matters worse, the singers were largely left to their own devices, trapped in what was essentially a concert staging, caged in stygian gloom thanks to some of the weakest lighting I’ve encountered.

Chiara Skerath (Ännchen) and Johanni van Oostrum (Agathe) © Julien Benhamou
Chiara Skerath (Ännchen) and Johanni van Oostrum (Agathe)
© Julien Benhamou

There were some very decent vocal performances to brighten the darkness, led by Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s engaging Max. If the scale of his tenor is more Tamino than Florestan, its purity suited the character, shaping his lines fluently. Vladimir Baykov sang a gruff, dark Kaspar, a nasty piece of work who gets his comeuppance when that seventh bullet turns in his direction. The women were interestingly cast. Johanni van Oostrum was a lighter-voiced Agathe than often encountered, with sweet, pearly tone but, even up against the modest palette of period instruments, she struggled to ride the orchestra in “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle”. Chiara Skerath’s spirited Ännchen, however, was darker than usual, with little of the perky soubrette quality normally associated with the role. Christian Immler made a strong impression in the final scene as the hermit.

Johanni van Oostrum (Agathe) and accentus © Julien Benamou
Johanni van Oostrum (Agathe) and accentus
© Julien Benamou

Laurence Equilbey never really inspired Insula to anything beyond a routine reading of the score, with only the horns and their wobbly tuning adding a suitably rustic feel to events. Her choir, accentus, sang with detailed precision, but were given little to do by the directors other than stand in serried ranks or tight clusters. With a little more imagination – a little more magic – this could have been a fine staging. It comes to the Barbican in November as a concert performance. It could be difficult to spot the difference.


Mark's press trip to Paris was funded by Nicky Thomas Media

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