Lovers of German Romanticism are instinctively drawn to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, a three-act opera with spoken dialogue that premiered in Berlin in 1821 to a libretto by Friedrich Kind. In a riveting construct, the opera pits bourgeois constraints and class-consciousness against a backdrop of the dark and demonic. The young apprentice Max has been challenged to a marksmanship competition whose prize for accuracy will not only secure his beloved Agathe as bride, but also ensure his position as chief forester and successor to her father, Kuno. For success at any cost, Max allies himself with the power of evil in Kaspar, the blacksmith whose magical bullets never fail to hit their mark, but are party to the devil’s work.

Christopher Ventris (Max) and Christof Fischesser (Kaspar) © Hans Jörg Michel
Christopher Ventris (Max) and Christof Fischesser (Kaspar)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Given that convoluted plot, Herbert Fritsch’s new Zurich production makes a colourful spectacle of what some might consider “dated” operatic content. His minimalist set is the very definition of economical; two architectural elements – house block, and pyramid-gabled tower – can be configured into a church, a home and parts of the proverbial “Wolf’s Glen”, where its stark geometries replace the woodsy tangle familiar from other productions. Spectacular lighting (Torsten König) is also used as a graphic element: hard and pop-art-like, it stays within a fairy-tale realm of hot pink, lime green and bright yellow, ably saturating the clean surfaces of the ever-changing set configurations.

A seemingly rudimentary set, true, but there are actions and stuffs that largely overshadow the emotive nuances of the music. Given that the voices were so stellar, this was particularly troubling. As Max, Christopher Ventris looked like a Hummel figure on stage, but sang like an archangel, his full-bodied voice carrying like an intimate conversation to every part of the hall. He made the agony of decision palpable despite the dramatic sweep of his fringe to one side, and his  booby leather costume. Premiering here in the role of his Agathe, Lise Davidsen had terrifically strong carriage and voice modulation. Her soprano has a silvery gleam, and her passages from high to middle voice were seamless. In scenes with her animated − if strident − maid, Ännchen, (Mélissa Petit), the two engaged in the comic banter and intrigue one hears in a corporate ladies room.

Lise Davidsen (Agathe) © Hans Jörg Michel
Lise Davidsen (Agathe)
© Hans Jörg Michel

As the dodgy opportunistic Kaspar, Christof Fischesser infused his fine singing role with the gestures and persuasive powers of a delusional politician. Further, in a cameo role of the Hermit, Wenwei Zhang sang with the resonance of a big bronze bell. Dressed head to foot in what looked like a straw hut, he took total command of the stage from his perch three metres above it. As often in this production, that engineering seemed as risky as it was thrilling.

Victoria Behr’s costumes were also extraordinary: shoulders padded to the point of bursting, the hat, bow and stitching variations like 19th century peasant dress on steroids. Agathe’s bell skirt is broad enough for a grown man to hide under, and indeed, the devil does just that in the surprising twist of the last scene. Behr’s inventive and bright combinations scream for attention, adding humour and a degree of blasphemy to the staging; rarely has costuming commanded such presence, or caused such a distraction.

Lise Davidsen (Agathe) and Chorus © Hans Jörg Michel
Lise Davidsen (Agathe) and Chorus
© Hans Jörg Michel

“Distraction” might be this production’s middle name. Even Weber’s sublime overture was accompanied by a video of pulsating, concentric circles  – whether a motorized Ugo Rondinone painting or an ad for a headache remedy – all of 12 minutes long. While the bombastic bullseye braced us for more neon colours ahead, that music hardly needed blatant decoration. Fortunately, under Marc Albrecht the fine Philharmonia Zürich orchestra showed itself tight as a tick throughout. The fine cello, violin and oboe solos pulled dependably at the heartstrings; the horns gave a healthy influx of authority and military order when all hell was breaking loose in Max’s ill-devised plan. Further, the chorus, under the direction of Jürg Hämmerli, mastered demanding staging directions, and vocally, simply shone.

Florian Anderer (Samiel) © Hans Jörg Michel
Florian Anderer (Samiel)
© Hans Jörg Michel

No question, the staging is an Augenschmaus, a visible feast. Yet the gags, quacks and blatant sexual allusions in this production were not only legion, they were often predictable and even somewhat infantile. The red devil, Samiel (Florian Anderer) did a fine job of trickery and slithery ruse, but the antics with his long spiked tail, for example, were simply too many and clichéd for my taste. While the singers were superb and the music, sublime, it was the stuff of the staging that took priority here, operating under the assumption that the modern audience truly needs some form of constant stimulation. In sum, for as amusing and eventful as this production is, it runs completely against an age-old grain that argues, “less is more”.