The last time that Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) was performed in London was on the penultimate night of the 2011 Proms season. Then Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique employed the 1841 Paris version, sung in French with all dialogue replaced with Berlioz recitative.
The version performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, in a concert performance under the baton of Sir Colin Davis, also saw the dialogue substituted, but with a new English narration from Amanda Holden. It was pleasingly straight forward in tone and overall had more strengths than weaknesses. For example, it was more effective to have the narrator, rather than the character of Kaspar, explain at the start that the whole society is instinctively fearful through memories of the Thirty Years’ War. Those few occasions in the original opera, however, where the dialogue frequently ‘interrupts’ the singing felt multiplied out by the constant flitting to the narrator (an admirable Malcolm Sinclair). Similarly, in the absence of the accompanying drama, Sinclair had to urge the bridesmaids to reprise their happy song after Agathe had found a wreath, which felt just a little hammed.
Davis’s conducting, on the other hand, was an unqualified triumph as he combined a generally expansive tone with suitably momentum-driven rhythms. As Max, Simon O’Neill went to town with his heldentenor voice, which maintained a strong, clean line through phrases, and even at the top of its register still felt relatively light. Falk Struckmann had to drop out from playing Kaspar, but no-one would have been disappointed with the performance of Lars Woldt. He possessed the same cleanness of tone as O’Neill, although the lower range in which he sang ensured a sufficiently interesting variation in sound. His characterisation was also strong as he adopted an assertive, manipulative persona in Act I, before revealing far more of his own desperation when confronting Zamiel. Even after he had ‘died,’ as he remained on the stage, his face betrayed a sense of wretchedness and malice.
Christine Brewer also sang at the top of her game as Agathe, with her performances of ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer, bevor ich ihn geseh’n’ and ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’ reaching mesmerising heights, as they combined strength, texture and an all-embracing sense of emotion. She, along with O’Neill, also proved strongest at remaining in character throughout, responding effectively to the narration as it was delivered. Sally Matthews was a beautiful Ännchen, providing an effective counterbalance to the character of Agathe, achieving genuine purity in her soaring lines, and delivering ‘Einst träumte meiner sel`gen Base’ with a keen sense of story-telling. From among the minor principals, Martin Snell as Kunos, and Gidon Saks as the Hermit with his short but challenging sing, also stood out.
The London Symphony Chorus produced a sound that if occasionally a little overbearing and unrelenting, was tonally strong throughout. The women excelled particularly in ‘Wir winden dir den Jungfernkranz’ and the men in ‘Hier oben in den Asten’. The greatest innovation, however, lay in the use of paper cones (large for the basses, small for everyone else) to direct their sound in ‘Milch des Mondes fiel aufs Kraut’. This proved surprisingly effective in focusing the spirits’ communal voice and handing it an eerie quality.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk