in: Reviews

October 21, 2008

Opera Boston opened its season with Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz”

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Opera Boston opened its season opened at the Cutler Majestic Theatre with Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, locally absent for two dozen years. On the last night (October 21) Gil Rose led a rendition musically compelling enough to overlook some orchestral untidiness – though the key instrumental soloists all delivered – and to withstand director Sam Helfrich’s rather smirky staging.

One applauds the impulse to get beyond the surface of Friedrich Kind’s implicitly nationalistic folklorish libretto; but in aiming to explore the “psychotic dream states” anxiety provokes in Agathe, Max and Kaspar, Helfrich and set designer Andrew Holland amassed an impoverishing wealth of post-modern detritus: blue plastic rubbish containers, stuffed boar and bear with affixed plastic targets, television antennas. The musically able chorus – who, as Helfrich’s program note properly stated, play a fairly antagonistic role in this work – were pushed into exaggerated carryings-on throughout. The visual tone grated, and narrative clarity suffered.

Agathe seemed prospectively an odd fit for Emily Pulley: an iconically passive role for an incisive singing actress with an attractive yet vibrant timbre very different from the role’s traditional “pure” sound (the role is a midpoint between Mozartian and Wagnerian emplois). Yet Pulley sang Weber’s music with great skill. Her essential honesty onstage may have worked against her in Helfrich’s production, since she played the drama for emotional truth while Kitsch unrolled around her. Surely no one ever asked Elisabeth Grümmer or Claire Watson to stand spot-lit before a blue target poster holding a bouquet in one hand and Max’s dead eagle in the other while singing “Und ob die Wolke.”

The bird regained the floor after Pulley sustained the first of two high A flats finessed with arching pianissimi. In Helfrich’s frame, Daniel Snyder’s tall, plausibly romantic Max also tended to seem silly when acting ardent. His flinty baritonal tenor, more useful than beautiful, withal posed no problems in range or audibility in his testing music.

Heather Buck’s lissome Ännchen, styled as a hot-to-trot barmaid, probably best achieved Helfrich’s intentions; her agile voice sparkles most at its top end. Andrew Funk’s rough-hewn Kaspar, not always precisely on the note, impressed in the dialogue and certainly delivered the goods dramatically – when possible. The famed Wolf’s Glen scene in which, with the evil magician Samiel’s connivance he cast the magic bullets for Max, showcasing David Lynch-style domestic nightmares (mercifully absent dwarves) fell flat, perceptibly confusing the audience.

There was one nice visual coup: the family portraits representing the weight of tradition simultaneously fell down as Max fired his (fatal) final bullet. Helfrich’s best concept, doubling the revered Hermit and Samiel, occasioned Herbert Perry a lot of portentious striding about, but Perry’s dignified yet alert presence and still-resonant bass proved equal to the paired tasks. David Kravitz (Ottokar) fielded a smooth, impressive bass, Tom O’Toole (Kuno) a substantial but rougher one — plus rather Bostonian spoken Teutonic vowels. Baritone Aaron Engebreth, though coaxed directorially into sitcom attitudinizing, sounded firm and healthy as Killian.

David Shengold A Philadelphia-based arts critic, has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Opéra Magazine (France), Musical America Online, Playbill and Time Out New York among many others. He also has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Wexford Festival programs and lectures for the Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre.

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