The Wolf’s Glen scene in Weber’s Der Freischütz is terrifically difficult to stage – a supernatural centrepiece to a folkloric opera. Director Michael Thalheimer circumvents this in his Staatsoper Berlin production by staging the entire opera in the Wolf’s Glen itself, albeit relocated from a “fearsome forest gorge” to what looks like a badger’s sett. Steeply raked, with a tiny entrance at its tip and entirely backlit, I suspect we were supposed to be looking down the barrel of a rifle. Either way, it made for a monotonous two-hour staging, played without interval.

Anna Prohaska (Ännchen) © Katrin Ribbe
Anna Prohaska (Ännchen)
© Katrin Ribbe

Olaf Altmann’s set(t) seriously impeded the cast, who staggered about gingerly like mountain goats on a precipice. Tottering their way downstage, Anna Samuil (Agathe) and Nikolai Schukoff (Max) looked more intent on staying upright than delving into character. The Wolf’s Glen scene itself was only partially successful, with atmospheric flashes of lightning at climactic moments, but having seven extras clad in black crawling up the tunnel – the seven magic bullets loading the gun barrel – was embarrassing. Much of the dialogue was cut, without doing much harm to comprehension or flow.

Peter Moltzen (Samiel) © Katrin Ribbe
Peter Moltzen (Samiel)
© Katrin Ribbe
Thalheimer’s other idea is to make Samiel, the black huntsman personifying the devil, omnipresent. Wearing a fur hood and horns, his bare chest smothered in earth and blood, Peter Moltzen dominates the production, often in an intrusive way, maniacally laughing, whooping and leering. When the villainous Kaspar, whose soul is to be forfeited to the devil the next day, summons him: “Samiel! Erschein!” (Samiel! Appear!), it’s all rather ironic, because Samiel’s been there from the very beginning and he’s not going anywhere soon! He’s even there when Agathe is sharing her darkest forebodings with Ännchen, over whom Samiel appears to have some demonic hold. In the end, it all got too much, to that point that Moltzen’s grimacing and gurning over Kaspar’s body completely distracted from Wilhelm Schwnghammer’s fine cameo as the Hermit at the opera’s end.

Musically, there were some very fine things to enjoy, not least the astonishing playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin under young British conductor Alexander Soddy. Drawing an incredibly saturnine string sound helped colour the dark overture, aided by horn playing of real distinction. Of the principals, Anna Prohaska’s Ännchen stood out, her bright tone and excellent diction true assets and at least Thalheimer’s direction made her character seem less annoyingly pert than usual. Falk Struckmann was an excellent Kaspar, black-voiced and spitting out his consonants with devilish relish.

Peter Moltzen (Samiel) and Anna Prohaska (Ännchen) © Katrin Ribbe
Peter Moltzen (Samiel) and Anna Prohaska (Ännchen)
© Katrin Ribbe
Both leads were less impressive. Schukoff’s Max often appeared bewildered, not exactly firing on all cylinders in his aria “Durch die Wälder”, although he did vary his dynamics well. Samiul has a Wagnerian sized soprano when she lets rip, but for much of the evening, she strove to rein back the volume in both her arias “Leise, leise, fromme Weise” and “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle”. This resulted in difficulties in breath control and phrasing, while top notes occasionally had a hard, curdled quality.

The supporting cast was generally strong, especially Alfredo Daza’s glowing baritone as Prince Ottokar and Victor von Halem’s gravelly Kuno. The chorus, waving branches in the opening scene like extras from Macbeth, were sturdy, the men swapping their branches for beer tankards in the finale.

In an operatic shooting contest, this Freischütz fired a dud bullet.