German Romanticism is all about spooks, spirits, the world of the supernatural and pacts with Satanic forces, not to mention an outpouring of feeling. This is the backdrop to Weber’s most popular opera, Der Freischütz, chosen by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to celebrate both its 30th anniversary and the end of the current season. Lest this be thought to contain too much historical baggage, the storyline continues to throw up an intriguing moral dilemma. Put yourself in the shoes of our young hero, the huntsman Max. If your skill as a marksman is going through an inexplicable trough, your future livelihood and upward social mobility depend on gaining the position of head forester, and your future happiness hangs on winning the hand of the retiring head forester’s daughter, how far would you go to secure these goals?

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd
Given that Weber’s masterpiece with its transitions from bourgeois domesticity to dark forest and treacherous terrain is notoriously difficult to stage, a concert performance must inevitably involve compromises. Here, the biggest of these involved what Weber actually devised, which is an example of Singspiel. At the time of its première in 1821, the use of the German language was an important unifying force in the Kleinstaaterei of the day, helping to establish a counter-tradition to Italian opera. David Pountney’s solution of making the story more intelligible to an English-speaking audience was to extract all the narrative elements in the libretto and give them to the Hermit. This was John Tomlinson, suitably rustic in attire and acting as a scribe, with reams of paper and a quill at the ready, seated for the most part at a writing-desk. Some of his narration was overly detailed and delivered, albeit with dramatic flourishes, at a speed which no audience could be expected to fully absorb. Curiously, in the Wolf’s Glen scene which closes Act II, the Singspiel elements, in which Kaspar, who has already ceded his own soul to the Devil, taunts Max with cowardice, were reinstated. Far more problematic was the decision to entrust Tomlinson with the characters of both the Hermit and the satanic Samiel. Pountney, in a pre-concert discussion, suggested that this was an allusion to the moral ambiguity of the human soul. Nevertheless, this tampering with authenticity produced two inconsequentialities: in the final scene when Kaspar addresses Samiel directly and curses him, Tomlinson had already withdrawn, and a storyteller who is on stage for most of a performance can then hardly act as the deus ex machina intended by the composer.

Musically, the performance was on a much higher level, aided by the wonderfully responsive playing of the OAE and Sir Mark Elder’s ideal pacing of the score. If there was a weakness here, it was his occasional failure to extract the last degree of expressiveness from a score which teems with originality and striking orchestral effects. German Romantics were never middle-of-the-roaders; they revelled in their mood swings and relished the entire gamut of human sensibility.

One of the delights of this performance was the high quality of the casting, with all the minor roles, including the eleven members of the bridesmaids’ chorus, well taken. If I have a few reservations about the Max sung by Christopher Ventris, it is because the Heldentenor elements in his voice were a little too obvious and in the Act II trio with Agathe and Ännchen he unduly dominated the ensemble. The outstanding male singing and characterisation came from Simon Bailey in the role of Kaspar. This had a lived-in quality to it from a singer who was completely comfortable with all its demands. The black quality to his voice, Iago-like in its insinuation, was always at the service of the music, and in his key Act I aria the absolute steadiness in his deepest register when he reached “Nichts kann dich retten vom tiefen Fall” was most impressive.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen was an ideal Agathe. Her creamy voice and purity of line, with commendable security in all registers, was what Weber surely had in mind. That she had completely internalised the Romantic spirit emerged especially in her Act II scena and aria – here given a celestial floating quality and beautifully supported by the OAE’s susurrating strings –  and in the Act III bridal cavatina, where the full range of emotions was expressed with perfect technical control. Sarah Tynan, in the soubrette role of Ännchen, was an excellent foil for her cousin Agathe, with delightful touches of coquetry in her Act II arietta and comic resource in her Act III aria.

And what of the 100 or so members of the London Philharmonic Choir? They handled all their big set-pieces with considerable aplomb, but at the risk of sounding picky their massed ranks reminded me uncomfortably at times of oratorio singing. Authentic this was not.

****1