Gone was Classical logic and rational form from the South Bank last Tuesday night when its period instrument ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment stepped out of character and embraced the dark spooks of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. This work, more than any, ushered in the unholy forces of German Romanticism when first performed in Berlin in 1821. Here at the Royal Festival Hall two hundred years later, it ushered in who knows what future with cohesive energy, brilliant string playing and unstoppable dramatic momentum.
Semi-staged and sung in German with subtitles, it differed from the original Singspiel by replacing the spoken dialogue with a witty English paraphrase by David Pountney, who also directed. This narration was delivered by Sir John Tomlinson, one of the great lights of the world stage, as the habit-clad Hermit sitting throughout the first half in a stone circle before the orchestra. In the original, his function is merely to lend a humble but godly frame to the whole, but recreating the role as the master storyteller was a clear improvement. He enunciated with avuncular authority, appreciative of the rhythm of Pountney’s phrases. At the conclusion he sang his allotted lines, his bass fruity with experience as he scolded a society that had caused its subjects to fear failure by too rigid an application of reason.
In a Freischütz pact with the devil, a huntsman is granted seven bullets or free shots, six to land where he wills, but the seventh at the devil’s discretion. Bass Simon Bailey as Kaspar, a huntsman who has already sold out, sang with transfixing charisma in the Wolf’s Glen scene at the black heart of the opera when he slowly forges the glowing bullets. The semi-staging robbed us of the impact of the darkening scenes with the lit musicians on and not under the stage, though one felt it in Bailey’s mesmerising performance. His evil as he left the stage with an authentically demonic laugh was captivatingly contrasted by soprano Sarah Tynan as Ännchen, whose thrilling voice effervesced with gaiety, lightness and innocence. After the shocking delivery of the wrong wreath – funeral rather than bridal – she lightened the air like a practised raconteuse as she sang the joke about a watch-dog mistaken for a ghost.
The central couple fared less well. Tenor Christopher Ventris as the huntsman Max, tempted to give Freischütz a go since his wedding depends on a bullseye, sang with heroic frailty and his climactic, rhetorical 'Lebt kein Gott?' (is there no God?) rang out round the 3,000-seater like an apocalyptic alarm. He cracked once at the start, though this was in keeping with his Hamlet-like wobbling, but he was also rather miscast in his years. His betrothed Agathe was sung by Rachel Willis-Sørenson, who has warm, powerful, complex tone, which will be useful in tragic roles when she rectifies a tendency to pitch slightly low at the start of long notes.
The London Philharmonic Chorus sang from the balcony with vivid involvement, not least in the awesome 'Uhui!' chorus which they delivered from behind peek-a-boo hands. A semi-chorus of bridesmaids sang Weber’s joyful two-part melody with the perfect guilt-free optimism of a pre-modernist age. Conductor Sir Mark Elder set speeds that were never too slow and once, in the gabbled first chorus, too fast. There were other rough patches, and the all-important integral overture contained a few. The ensemble undercooked the first note crescendo and the nervous horns made a mess of the hunting theme. One puts it down to the crude period technology, but it does expose an anomaly in all historically aware music-making. The original players would surely have welcomed any opportunity to improve their instruments; these must resist, as they have done now for 30 years.
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