With thrilling sets and clever direction of the actors, the latest Dresden production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, that most German of all operas, struck a neat balance between tradition and kitsch.

Director Axel Köhler removed the setting from the Thirty Years War, preferring a more recent conflict (perhaps World War II). Arne Walther’s sets showed a kind of typically German inn marked by the war. In spite of traditional costumes by Katharina Weissenborn, one never had the feeling of having ended up in The Sound of Music and The White Horse Inn. Köhler has created an idyllic country house set in the woods, but the mood is oppressive, even in friskier moments, and mirrors the nightmares that are befalling the people. In spite of the large sets, there were no lengthy intervals, with changes of scenery cleverly executed to avoid losing the audience’s attention.

In the orchestra pit, Christian Thielemann and the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden had nothing to fear from comparison with Carlos Kleiber’s benchmark 1973 performance. Immediately, in the overture, Thielemann showed his mastery by bringing out innumerable tiny details hiding in the score; the orchestra followed his instruction with great virtuosity and displayed once more that they are an orchestra of the highest rank. The Sächsiche Staatsopernchor also came up trumps in the many chorus scenes, bringing something fresh even to the most familiar music, making it a veritable feast for the ears.

The brightest stars in the cast where Sara Jakubiak as Agathe, Christina Landshamer as Ännchen, Michael König as Max and Georg Zeppenfeld as Kaspar. Jakubiak sang in an attractive soprano voice with wonderfully clear diction, able to convince us with velvet-soft tone and impeccable technique at all parts of her range. In the role of the cheeky Ännchen, Landshamer was notable not only for an exceptionally flexible soubrette soprano but also in the marked enthusiasm she displayed. Just as much as her technically challenging arias, her convincing portrayal of the role were a joy for both the ears and the eyes.

The part of Max was perfectly suited to the vocal qualities of Michael König. Despite his very young-sounding timbre, his tenor is very powerful: this role shows it to best advantage, with König creating enormous contrast between lyrical, songlike passages and an excellent portrayal of despair. Playing Kaspar, Georg Zeppenfeld, well beloved by the Dresden audience, was similarly well suited to his role, playing it excellently with his powerful, dark bass. Mephisto-like, he corrupted Max, providing a convincing portrait of horrifying evil, not just with his voice. Also vocally strong, but sometimes too heavy in his phrasing, Albert Dohmen’s portrayal of Kuno was somewhat overshadowed.

A highlight of the staging was provided by the Act II hunters’ chorus. Going against the markings in the score, this was in fact staged as a song together with children’s play in honour of the Prince. So the men of the chorus sang while a group of children portrayed the hunters at their craft. While the boys played the huntsmen in hunting costumes and wooden rifles, the girls portrayed the deer that were the hunters’ prey. It was a charming idea, and the young performers were rewarded with rich applause.

Also impressive was the staging of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene, even though it would have been just as convincing had it displayed less violence: The impressive scenery was set as dark woodland strewn with corpses (which were later on seen hanging in the air, as if by magic), resulting in a depressing, angst-ridden atmosphere – a mood that was further accentuated by a variety of video effects projected onto the scenery.

This production for Semperoper is at the same time traditional and innovative. With excellence of direction, this new Freischütz is a thoroughly exciting and successful production, as much in its staging as in its high vocal quality, reflecting well the marvellous nature of the work.

Translated from German by David Karlin