After a rollicking account of the famous overture, Christian von Götz’s new production of Der Freischütz at Oper Leipzig keeps the momentum up with a rip-roaring, high-spirited romp through the opening scene. The overture is played against a Romantic landscape on a gauze, but this is raised at the opening chorus to reveal a smart hunting-lodge replete with dancing girls in Dirndls, the festivities unleashed from the first of many freeze-frame tableaux the director employs throughout the evening.

Verena Hierholzer (Samiel) and Tuomas Pursio (Kaspar) © Ida Zenna
Verena Hierholzer (Samiel) and Tuomas Pursio (Kaspar)
© Ida Zenna

We’ve already had a glimpse, though, of the reverse side of Diether Richter’s expertly realised revolving set: Agathe’s bedroom. This place of private loneliness and worry is the flipside to the main room as site of public, officially enforced high-jinx. The costumes and set, with Jugendstil wallpaper in Agathe’s room, suggest we’re actually at the end of the 19th century, and everything seems to be as much about historical re-enactment as reality.

Women and men are kept largely separate, while, as a note in the programme reveals, the jollity is pursued so vigorously in part to suppress fears that this society might fall back into an earlier state that ‘was long ago overcome’. This male-dominated society has other fears, too, not least that of powerful, strong women, embodied in folklore in the figure of the witch. For von Götz, then, the Wolf’s Glen becomes part Witches’ Sabbath, and here Samiel becomes an ambiguous female figure, performed by the dancer Verena Hierholzer.

Thomas Mohr (Max) and Verena Hierholzer (Samiel) © Ida Zenna
Thomas Mohr (Max) and Verena Hierholzer (Samiel)
© Ida Zenna

Bearing a slight resemblance to the possessed child in The Exorcist, this Samiel stalks the both areas of the set ­– and, one imagines, the characters’ thoughts – like the ghost of so many gothic novels and operas past. For the Wolf’s Glen itself, she presides with strangely amplified voice over a gnarled mass of skulls and undergrowth which appears in a sea of dry ice in the middle of the lodge, while her movements, and those of everyone else, are mirrored in projections far up-stage.

Here, though, von Götz’s ideas seemed in danger of being drowned out by something closer to Hammer Horror as Tuomas Pursio’s Kaspar, replete with a skull impaled on his dagger, writhes around and chews the scenery as additional dancers prance about. In a production concerned with supressed fears, and which both literally and figuratively brings many of those fears indoors, I couldn’t help feeling something more subtle was required.

Magdalena Hinterdobler (Ännchen), Gal James (Agathe) and Verena Hierholzer (Samiel) © Ida Zenna
Magdalena Hinterdobler (Ännchen), Gal James (Agathe) and Verena Hierholzer (Samiel)
© Ida Zenna

The final scene, too, wasn’t entirely successful, with the appearance of Gal James’ excellent Agathe at the moment critique eliciting some sniggers from the audience around me. The start of Act III did a better job: after James’ beautifully spun “Und ob die Wolke” and a delicious account of “Einst träumte meiner sel'gen Base” from Magdalena Hinterdobler’s spunky Ännchen (with outstanding solos respectively from cellist Tobias Bäz and violist Vincent Auncante), a mischievously ironic ‘performance’ from the Bridesmaids reinforced the strange ambiguous nature of the setting.

The over-eager boyishness of Thomas Mohr’s outstandingly sung, clear-toned Max seemed also to position the character within some sort of middle ground between naivety and knowing complicity. And there was a further interesting idea in recasting Jonathan Michie’s youthful, authoritative Ottokar as a slightly threatening military upstart. There was no faulting the vividness, commitment or dangerous energy of Pursio’s Kaspar, either, but his character as directed here could only seem a little cartoonish in comparison.

Tuomas Pursio (Kaspar) and Thomas Mohr (Max) © Ida Zenna
Tuomas Pursio (Kaspar) and Thomas Mohr (Max)
© Ida Zenna

The rest of the cast was excellent, and the Oper Leipzig Chorus was on rousing form. The Gewandhausorchester, though it received little help in conjuring up the necessary musical atmosphere from the theatre’s dry, ungenerous acoustic, nevertheless played wonderfully for Christoph Gedschold’s lively – occasionally over-lively – musical leadership.

But von Götz’s production remains a bit of a mystery. Its occasional recourse to something like theatrical cliché is perhaps all part of the thoughtful critical irony that seems to underlines the show. From where I was sitting, though, those moments felt more like lapses in tone, a loss of seriousness. So it doesn’t all work – can any staging of this opera these days? – but still the verve, commitment and musical quality of this show ultimately make it difficult to resist. 

****1