The overture to Der Freischütz is a familiar concert warm-up, but the opera itself is a rarer find these days. It wasn't always so. With over fifty performances in the eighteen months following its 1821 Berlin debut, Weber's spooky tale of souls traded for magic bullets was an instant hit. Its popularity in Paris was cemented by an early bowdlerised, Frenchified version which proved a huge influence on the young Berlioz, despite his reservations about the extensive changes made to pander to public taste.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner & Andrew Kennedy © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner & Andrew Kennedy
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

When Berlioz himself was given the opportunity to rearrange the work for the Opéra de Paris nearly twenty years later, he was determined to alter as little as possible. But in those days strict regulations governed what each Parisian lyric theatre could show. So the spoken dialogue had to go; speech was the domain of the Opéra Comique. Berlioz's replacement recitatives - in French, like the translated libretto - meld so selflessly and seamlessly into the original music you could imagine they were written by Weber himself. The Opéra's demands for a ballet were met with the stylistically incongruous addition of an orchestrated version of Weber's piano piece Invitation to the Dance - an oddity retained for this Proms concert performance despite the absence of dancers.

In the spirit of Berlioz, John Eliot Gardiner attempts to strip back accumulated questionable performance practices and return the work to its roots in an interpretation created for a fully staged version shown in Paris this spring. With the period instruments of his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and lighter voices than are usually cast, Gardiner looks backward, highlighting Weber's French precedents, playing down his proto-Wagnerian innovations and toying gently here and there with both Weber's and Berlioz's versions of the score.

Whatever the academic merits of the approach, the light, springy orchestral textures and spirited pacing lent a Gallic flair that sat well with the French words. But there wasn't the weight or power to make moments of high drama truly telling. Despite Gardiner's addition of blood-curdling screams from the galleries and a Gauloise-rasping devil, the Wolf's Glen scene elicited more giggles than shudders. Tellingly, the scariest moment in the whole evening came right at the start as the singer/huntsmen aimed their muskets at the cheap seats and fired.

The Mozartian-scaled voices of the cast may have worked well in the smaller Paris venue, but most seemed a size too small in the vast and acoustically tricky Royal Albert Hall. Only Gidon Saks as the cursed hunter Kaspar had the required heft. His dark bass didn't sacrifice craft or complexity to reach out to the back rows either. The lyric tenor Andrew Kennedy was more questionably cast as Max. Heroic timbre is essential in this heroic role and Kennedy's attention to text and often exquisite tone didn't compensate for this fundamental shortfall. Sophie Karthäuser was similarly underequipped to tackle Max's love, Agathe. She sang prettily but ran out of wind at the end of her long phrases, sounding effortful where she should have been enchanting. Virginie Pochon made a better impression as her cousin Ännchen for the simple reason that she could actually meet the demands of the role. No doubt the BBC technicians craftily rebalanced voices for the Radio 3 live broadcast as they usually do - this may have been one occasion when the broadcast sounded better than the live show.