Weber: Der Freischütz
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London Philharmonic Choir, Sir Mark Elder
Royal Festival Hall. 7 June 2016
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been celebrating their 30th anniversary year with a remarkably wide range of music, culminating with this Birthday Concert performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz. Perhaps most noted for their exploration of Baroque and Classical music, it can be forgotten that the OAE have also performed many pieces from the Romantic era, with remarkable success – indeed, their second concert, 30 years ago, under Roger Norrington, was devoted entirely to Weber. And so it was with this powerful semi-dramatised performance.
‘Not all orchestras are the same’ is one of the OAE’s mottos, and they do seem to relish pushing boundaries. That was also the case with Weber and Der Freischütz, one of the opening salvos of the German Romantic movement. Set in a forest village, the plot centres on Max, the huntsman of the title, and the shooting trials he is required to go through to win the hand of Agathe, daughter of the ruling prince’s head forester. Cue wonderful scenes of hunting songs and cries, with a spectacular role for four horn players. Max agrees to sell his soul to win Agathe’s hand in return for magic silver bullets.
Just out of the historical Age of Enlightenment, Weber nonetheless retained many of the operatic conventions of that period, not least the deux ex machine ending, although in this case the aristocrat Prince Ottakar only appears near the end and has to cram in all the usual enlightenment twists and turns of his character in a short period of time. Another interesting post-Enlightenment aspect was the various reflections on God, with Max tormented by various doubts, including ‘is there no God?, a hip-flask bearing Kasper’s contention that a ‘young girl’s breasts pave the way to eternity’, along with ‘drink, dice and women’, Aganthe’s prayer to the moon and stars, and the perhaps inevitable concluding chorus of praise to God.
To hear Weber’s imaginative orchestrations played on instruments of his time is a revelation, and one that the OAE relish. They were directed by Sir Mark Elder, one of their five Principal Artists, who made it clear from the start that this was going to be a sensitive and revealing performance. With the orchestra on stage, rather than in a pit, and the singers in front of them rather than behind, the balance between soloists and orchestra was critical, and Mark Elder moulded that balance exceptionally well. Notable was his use of almost imperceptible volumes at times, drawing the audience into the musical sound world. All the principals had key solo moments, but honours should go to viola player Max Mandel, cellist Luise Buchberger and the four horn players Roger Montgomery, Martin Lawrence, Gavin Edwards, and David Bentley.
The London Philharmonic Choir joined in the fun with gusto, rocking back and forth in the dances, and whooping out their cries in the Wolf’s Den scene through opening hands. The simple but effective semi-staging was by David Pountney, who also reset the narrative parts of the Singspeil into a more approachable way in a new English translation, with the spoken text declaimed by the Hermit (Sir John Tomlinson, on fine form as singer and actor) from a writing desk surrounded by stones – one of the very few props of the evening. There was some confusion as to whether he was supposed to be writing down the story, or reading it out to us, but this was one of few weaknesses in the direction. In all other respects it worked exceptionally well.
The soloists were good, but perhaps not exceptional. Simon Bailey’s Kasper was the highlight vocal contribution, Christopher Ventris’ Max and Rachel Willis-Sørenson’s Agathe being a trifle too operatic for my tastes. Sarah Tynan excelled as Annchen, a lovely foil to Agathe. The chorus of Bridesmaids were students from the Royal Academy of Music, looking rather like 11 maids from school.