When Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performed Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz on the penultimate night of the 2011 Proms season they employed the 1841 Paris version, in which all of the dialogue is replaced with Berlioz’ recitative. The two performances that have graced London since then, by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2012 and Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2016, have both opted for the German original of 1821, only with the dialogue substituted for an English narration.
In contrast, this presentation by the Insula orchestra, under the baton of Laurence Equilbey, retained all of the German dialogue, which helped make the drama feel all-encompassing as there was no possibility of the spell being broken by repeatedly returning to ‘self-conscious’ description. The semi-staged performance originated from a production by Compagnie 14:20 that was seen in Caen and Paris earlier in the year, and, with the principals wearing costumes, the presentation proved strong as Samiel became a silent presence throughout the drama.
Played by circus performer Clément Dazin, he performed a few acrobatics, moved a crystal ball through the air by employing conjuring skills, and juggled with balls that symbolised the magic bullets. Overall, these movements were slow and mysterious so that there was only one occasion when they distracted from the aria that was being performed at the time. However, his presence from the start, which suggested just how much he wanted Max’s soul, detracted from the fact that it is really Kaspar’s mission to try to ensure it is substituted for his own, and not Samiel’s. However, when we saw him at all times and in all places, so that he also brandished the painting of Agathe’s ancestor that had just fallen from the wall, it became clear that his presence was symbolic of evil being all around.
The scene at Wolf’s Glen, which is powerful anyway, was especially well done as the chorus sang ‘Milch des Mondes fiel aufs Kraut’ from the balcony as lights were intermittently cast across the auditorium. Then Samiel slumped in the front row of the stalls to deliver his lines, which were actually spoken by Christian Immler from offstage. This revealed how indifferent he really was as to whether he had Kaspar or Max’s soul, and thus highlighted the contrast between him and Kaspar, whose desperation to be free of Samiel’s clutches was so all-embracing. Elsewhere, the standard of acting was also high so that at the start there was a real sense in which Kilian (Anas Séguin) thought it was simply fun and within the realms of acceptability to tease Max at having beaten him, while in contrast Max felt his entire world crashing down around him.
There were some excellent solo performances, with Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max revealing a very full tenor with an extremely pleasing tone. As Agathe, there was a glistening strength to Johanni van Oostrum’s soprano that saw her performances of ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer, bevor ich ihn geseh’n’ and ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’ reach mesmerising heights as they were imbued with an all-embracing sense of emotion. Chiara Skerath was a beautiful Ännchen, achieving a lovely line through her phrases, and delivering ‘Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base’ with a keen sense of storytelling. As Kaspar, Vladimir Baykov revealed a tremendous bass-baritone, while there was effective support from Thorsten Grümbel as Kunos, Samuel Hasselhorn as Ottakar and Christian Immler as the Hermit. The chorus, comprising accentus, was also on fine form with the women excelling particularly in ‘Wir winden dir den Jungfernkranz’ and the men in ‘Was gleicht wohl auf Erden’.
The sound generated by the orchestra was well balanced and paced. With period instruments being employed, it occasionally lacked the heft that modern ears are perhaps accustomed to enjoying, but this is not a score that requires unadulterated power from start to finish, and it could hardly be said that the most overwhelming passages felt anaemic. This was a performance that ultimately felt as lovingly rendered as it was thoughtfully produced.