Opera Atelier has made its reputation as a producer of 17th- and 18th-century operas for more than a quarter of a century, based at the elegant Elgin Theatre in Toronto since 2000. This year it has made a leap into another era and another century with a gorgeous production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Artists of Atelier Ballet © Bruce Zinger
Artists of Atelier Ballet
© Bruce Zinger

The production features stunning scenic designs, beautiful singing and enough dancing to qualify as almost an evening of ballet in the bargain.

Der Freischütz, which premièred in 1821, is billed as the first successful German Romantic opera. The basic story of Max the forester winning a shooting contest and getting Agathe, the daughter of the Kuno, the head forester, is laced with magic bullets, an evil huntsman called Samiel, a good Hermit, and an aura of the spooky and the supernatural.

The eerie side of the opera is best exemplified in the Wolf’s Glen scene. But there is also a folk tale aspect to the piece that is comic and rustic, and any successful production must capture all those elements.

Director Marshall Pynkoski, with set designer Gerard Gauci and costume designer Martha Mann, is hugely successful in capturing all those qualities with economy and precision. The folk side is helped by choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg who makes full use of the Atelier Ballet. The Opera Atelier Chorus is placed in the boxes to the left of the stage. They sing well but the floor space is needed for the ballet, it seems. A good arrangement.

There are a number of “moods” that need to be presented. The rustic opening scene where Max is ridiculed for his poor marksmanship turns eerie when Kaspar approaches him with an offer of magic bullets in exchange for his soul. Act II presents a domestic scene between Agathe and her cousin, the skittish and comical Aanchen, but even here omens of death and the supernatural are present. The light and the eerie combine to marvelous effect.

The great Wolf’s Glen scene combines apparitions, visions of the dead and a spooky atmosphere as the magic bullets are forged. Here we have superb lighting effects that accompany Weber’s extraordinary score in a scene worthy of its fame.

Der Freischütz has its origin in the tradition of the German Singspeil, a musical genre that contains singing and spoken dialogue. Pynkoski has wisely chosen to have the dialogue in English and the songs in German. Some of the songs are melodic and have the quality of folk ballads, while others are more dramatic and, need I add, eerie.

Croatian tenor Krešimir Špicer as Max sang with ease and assurance as if he were delivering simple and beautiful folk songs. He looked like an eager and distraught country chap who goes astray and in the end almost finds redemption.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay has a gorgeously sweet voice and she made a very sympathetic Agathe. She does not have a big voice and at times she sounded so delicate one was fearful she might be drowned by the orchestra. But conductor David Fallis maintained an exemplary balance between the singer and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and we heard her every note. She gave a bravura performance in her big aria in Act I, going through a series of emotions and tempi.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen took on the role of the skittish Aanchen. She sang well and showed a fine comic talent that provided an excellent contrast to the serious Agathe. Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre, a veteran of Opera Atelier, gives a commendable performance as Agathe’s father, Kuno. The tall LaQuerre has a distinguished stage presence and excellent vocal delivery.

The award for spookiness goes to baritone Vasil Garvanliev as Kaspar, the soul-trader. Garvanliev gives us a wily and wiry Kaspar whom one would want to see and hear only on stage – unless you have an extra soul to barter.

The mastery of the staging lies not in any Zeffirellian excess or pecuniary plentitude but in judicious use of apparently sparse resources and the imagination of lighting designer Bonnie Beecher. Combined with the marvelous sound of the Tafelmusik orchestra, the final product was a marvelous night at the opera.