Act 1 No 1: Overture [10'38]
Act 3 No 1: Entre-Acte [2'04]
Act 3 No 6: Schaut, o schaut, er traf die eig'ne Braut! (Chorus/Kilian/Agathe/Ännchen/Max/Kuno/Kaspar/Ottokar/Eremit) [18'47]
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Christine Brewer (soprano), Sally Matthews (soprano), Simon O'Neill (tenor), Martin Snell (bass), Lars Woldt (bass-baritone), Stephan Loges (baritone), Gidon Saks (bass), London Symphony Chorus
Weber's eerily fantastical Der Freischütz is heralded as one of the cornerstones of Romantic opera, being the first in operatic history to draw on traditional German folk tunes and elements of Romanticism. The evocative and colourful orchestration of the 'Wolf's Glen' scene, the most gruesomely expressive rendering of evil ever found in a musical score, is particularly impressive. Much of the music is instantly familiar: several of the melodies have been adapted as hymn tunes, and the Overture regularly appears in the concert hall.
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Weber’s evergreen masterpiece has had a chequered career. First performed in Berlin in 1821, it created a sensation rarely equalled in the annals of opera and quickly became the supreme expression of German Romanticism, the symbol par excellence of the contemporary quest for national identity (as well as a popular work outside German-speaking lands). In that respect its advent was perfectly timed; it came most carefully upon its hour.
Its subsequent history has been less fortunate. By the middle of the 19th century a sacred monument in its native country – part of the Wagnerian blood-and-soil conception of the German spirit – it had begun to lose its appeal elsewhere and to appear dated and even absurd. Its co-option in the 20th century as an instrument of Nazi ideology led in turn to a reaction and, in the years following the World War II, it was reinvented in Marxist terms or interpreted as a parable of existential despair or, alternatively, sent up as a naïve fairytale ripe for ridicule. To quote the American scholar and Freischütz-celebrator Donald Henderson, the work is regularly subjected to productions which ‘pit the illusions of its librettist and composer against the realities demanded by life today’. There is seemingly no end to the indignities visited on it.
In concert performance we can happily forget such fatuities and give ourselves freely to the delights of this perennial score. In any case, what is reality? Great artists re-make it. They create their own reality – and Weber does so in Der Freischütz. His music-drama is so vivid that the vision of the German forest world in the time following the horrors of the Thirty Years War – its customs and enjoyments, its daily habits, its superstitions, its hopes and fears, its terrors, its belief in the supernatural and in the power of evil and the possibility of good – becomes totally real.
Der Freischütz is an opera of unforgettable ‘sounds and sweet airs’: Max’s lyrical evocation of the woods and meadows in the days of his happiness; the intense impression of moonlight on Agathe’s balcony and the light wind moving among the pines; the peasants’ mocking laughter, their homely waltz fading into the dusk; the lovely lilt of Agathe’s and Ännchen’s A major duet; Ännchen’s merriment; Kaspar’s vicious piccolos; the baleful colour of clarinets in their lowest register, contrasted with the genial glow of the huntsmen’s horns, representatives of the struggle at the heart of the opera; and then the Wolf’s Glen and the evocative power of Weber’s orchestra, the sinister, hopping birds, the rushing cataract, the fury of the storm. Never before had music pictured nature and the natural world and human beings’ immersion in it with such freshness and mastery. Two centuries later, it rings as bright and true as ever.
Kuno, the head Ranger, is soon to retire. Having no male heir, he has settled the succession on Max, a young forester betrothed to Kuno’s daughter Agathe. Max has only to pass the Trial Shot; but his skill has suddenly deserted him. Without knowing it he has come under the evil influence of his jealous colleague Kaspar, who has sold his soul to Zamiel the demonic Black Huntsman. Kaspar has marked Max down as the victim, the substitute who will earn him a further term of life. The action begins on the eve of the day when Kaspar must meet Zamiel, and Max, his nerve shaken, fire the Trial Shot.
Act One: A clearing in the forest, in front of an inn, towards evening; a shooting match is just ending.
No 1, Introduction: The peasants acclaim Kilian, who has beaten Max. Peasants, marching in procession and led by the village band, celebrate the victory. Kilian taunts Max, and all join in jeering at him.
No 2: Max laments the ill-luck that dogs him; how will he bear the loss of Agathe? Kuno and the peasants urge him to trust in God. Huntsmen enter the clearing, impatient for the hunt.
No 3: Kilian tries to persuade Max to join their dance, but he refuses. Alone, but watched by Zamiel, he gives way to despair. He remembers his careless delight in the life of the woods and in Agathe’s love, and imagines her now, watching for him at her window, longing for news of his victory. But some dark power controls his destiny.
No 4: Kaspar, protesting friendship, sings a drinking song and, ignoring Max’s anger, insists on his joining him in toasts to Agathe and the Prince.
No 5: Kaspar exults in Max’s coming destruction, and calls on the powers of darkness to complete their work.
Act Two: An anti-chamber in the hunting lodge.
No 6: Ännchen hammers a nail into the wall and hangs the portrait of Kuno’s ancestor, which has just fallen, hitting Agathe. She makes light of the incident, but Agathe, who longs for Max’s return, sees it as an omen.
No 7: Ännchen tries to distract her and instil some of her own gaiety.
No 8: By the open window, Agathe waits for Max. She kneels in the moonlight and prays for him. Suddenly she sees him coming through the trees, a feather in his hat: he has won! Her fears are drowned in overwhelming joy.
No 9: Agathe, learning that Max is going to the Wolf’s Glen to retrieve the giant eagle he shot, entreats him not to go: it is an evil place. Max dissembles his agitation: danger is normal in a huntsman’s life. Ännchen at first laughs at Agathe’s fears, then joins her in warning Max.
No 10: The Wolf’s Glen. Invisible voices prophesy the death of a bride. Midnight strikes. Kaspar invokes Zamiel and bargains with him: he has found another victim. Max appears on a high crag and, as he descends, sees the ghost of his mother, warning him, and the figure of Agathe seeming to throw herself down a foaming cataract. Kaspar casts the bullets, calling them out one by one, his cry echoing from the rocks.
One: birds hop out of the darkness. Two: a black boar charges across the glen. Three: a storm, tearing trees up by the roots. Four: cracking of whips, baying of dogs, galloping hooves, flaming wheels. Five: the Wild Hunt. Six: two storms meet in the upper air. Seven: the Black Huntsman. He holds Max in his grasp. Max crosses himself. Zamiel vanishes. A distant clock strikes one.
No 11: Entre-Acte
No 12: In her room, though oppressed by sadness, Agathe kneels and prays: God will call her to be a bride, in heaven if not on earth.
No 13: Ännchen makes fun of Agathe’s fears and mocks the imagined horrors with a tale about a dog mistaken for a ghost. No 14: The bridesmaids adorn Agathe for her wedding.
No 15: In an open space, with tents – in one of which Prince Ottokar and his courtiers are feasting – his men regale themselves and praise the life of the huntsman.
No 16: All are horror-struck. But Agathe is not dead; she wakes from a deep faint. The Hermit has turned aside the bullet. Thwarted, Zamiel directed it to Kaspar. Zamiel, unseen, rises up and claims his soul. Kaspar dies, cursing his master. Max confesses his guilt and is condemned to exile. But the Hermit intercedes and persuades the Prince to show mercy. The Trial Shot is abolished. Max is given a year’s probation, at the end of which he can marry Agathe and become Ranger. He dedicates himself to expiation of his guilt. Agathe and the people give thanks to God.
David Cairns © 2012