“A fearsome forest gorge, thickly wooded; two thunderstorms are approaching… a blasted oak, its rotting core gives off a ghostly light.” If that stage description chills, so does the music for the Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz. Any director taking on Weber’s opera faces challenges. Max, the young huntsman, is lured into supernatural shenanigans to forge magic bullets that will insure victory in the shooting trial – and with it the hand of Agathe. Stage the opera traditionally, it risks coming across as folksy nonsense. Put a modern twist on it, it can just look ridiculous. Sándor Zsóter’s production for the Hungarian State Opera takes risks, with very mixed results.

Krisztián Cser (Kaspar), Andrea Ladányi (Samiel) and Zoltán Nyári (Max) © Attila Nagy
Krisztián Cser (Kaspar), Andrea Ladányi (Samiel) and Zoltán Nyári (Max)
© Attila Nagy

Bohemia’s woods and fields are far removed from Mária Ambrus’ set, which consists of a mosaic cyclorama, with strong political overtones, over which hovers a giant bicycle wheel roof, tipping and tilting, rising and falling. Zsóter turns communism into the real threat, rather than the supernatural. When Kilian shoots down the target in the opening scene, it is a floral tribute containing a giant yellow hammer… all that’s missing is the sickle. Ännchen uses an identical yellow hammer to nail the portrait of Agathe’s ancestor back to the wall from which it has fallen. When the bridesmaids carry in the bridal wreath, instead of an erroneous funeral wreath being contained within the box, there is the floral tribute to communism again.

Zoltán Nyári (Max) and Andrea Ladányi (Samiel) © Attila Nagy
Zoltán Nyári (Max) and Andrea Ladányi (Samiel)
© Attila Nagy
Zsóter’s other big idea is to represent the black huntsman Samiel, a spoken role personifying the devil, by a female dancer. Andrea Ladányi often works with Zsóter as his choreographer, and she brought striking presence to the role. When Kaspar allows Max to use a magic bullet and shoots down an eagle, it is Samiel who enters, dressed in feathered costume. Ladányi also brings an eerie, erotic presence when Max relates the story of his exploits to Agathe, unable to stop touching him. In the final scene, Samiel – dressed in the same dove-like bridal gear as Agathe – literally guides Max’s rifle towards his bride, but it is Kaspar who receives the deflected bullet. When Samiel is summoned in the Wolf’s Glen scene, a near naked Ladányi writhes and smothers her body in black paint. It’s a provocative interpretation, but the rest of the Wolf’s Glen scene fell very flat indeed, the choral writhing nearly as risible as the inexplicable presence of non-singing extras – men of a certain age, dressed in green leotards. Flame-throwers tried to add a bit of heat, but the temperature in the auditorium remained cool, the audience nonplussed.

Given Ladányi’s astute, if histrionic, performance, it’s difficult to believe she is credited as choreographer when the dancing of the chorus through much of the opening scene looked as if they’d been left to their own devices. This reached its nadir with the seven bridesmaids, twerking at seven different speeds ranging from tentative to convulsive.

The lighting of the production was infuriatingly restless, going through the colours of the spectrum in rapid succession when illuminating the bicycle wheel. Agathe’s “Leise, leise, Fromme Weise!” was sung behind a scrim studded with neon stars, flashing like Christmas tree lights stubbornly left on ‘twinkle’ mode.

Vocal performances were as mixed as the staging. Krisztián Cser sang with dark, biting tone as a particularly vicious Kaspar, while Rita Rácz made for a sparky Ännchen, her bright soprano a delight. She made just as much impact with her dialogue – Zsóter had the dialogue delivered in Hungarian, with sung texts and recitatives in German.

Rita Rácz (Ännchen) and Beatrix Fodor (Agathe) © Attila Nagy
Rita Rácz (Ännchen) and Beatrix Fodor (Agathe)
© Attila Nagy
Zoltán Nyári was an effortful Max, straining for volume and very nearly spent in hi lower register before the Wolf’s Glen scene was over. His Act I aria “Durch di Wälder” contained some ugly dynamic swells and a tendency to sharpness, though his tenor sounds admirable at full throttle. Beatrix Fodor’s Agathe often sounded tentative, trying to rein in a Wagnerian soprano in Act II. When she did release ‘the big guns’ at the end of ““Leise, leise”, top notes were blowsy. Zsolt Haja made a positive impression in the brief role of Ottokar. Yesterday I accused his singing Valentin as if he was Wotan. I revise that… this young man’s voice has such a tenorial ring to it, he could probably attempt Siegmund.  István Berczelly, singing at the Hungarian State Opera since 1970, brought gravitas to the role of the Hermit.

Péter Halász steered a steady course through the score, classically correct rather than full of cheap thrills. The horns deserve special mention, negotiating the rustic huntsman calls well, while the string playing was clean.

Despite some provocative ideas, and strong performances from Kaspar and Ännchen, this Freischütz had more misses than hits. And I’m still flummoxed by the green leotards… 

**111