Having decided to stage Weber's supernatural opera for the first time in thirty years, the ENO management took the decision to entrust it to Mark Elder (conductor) and David Pountney (director), the duo responsible for the so called 'Powerhouse' years of the 1980s. During that time, when Elder was musical director and Pountney director of productions, their combined vision produced some of the most breathtaking stagings of the day (Rusalka and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to name but two). On paper it seemed an inspired decision to re-unite them in the opera house after six years of separation. Why then are the results so disappointing?
Weber's Germanic tale of the young huntsman Max who fails in a shooting contest, enlists the evil Kaspar to forge magic demonic bullets, and almost kills his bride to be before finding a happy ending is a tricky work to bring off. When Weber wrote it in 1821, people had a very different opinion of witchcraft and the occult than we do now; in its day, it was revolutionary and Wagner was hugely influenced by it.
Der Freischutz is a singspiel and is directly descended from Mozart so does not benefit from the heavy handed conducted and portentous playing which Elder and the orchestra deliver. Elder's Wagner is lithe and muscular; his Weber is lumpen and heavy. For his part, Pountney provides too many ideas and the stage looks cluttered in Ian MacNeil's designs. Some of the notions seem reasonable enough, but Pountney never really digs below the surface and thus allows a lot of the music to be upstaged by unnecessary gimmicks. I was not fooled, for instance, during Agathe's singing of leise, leise when the Death Star (Mark II) clumsily slides onto the stage disguised as the moon, nor when the disembodied voice of Samiel is none other than the Emperor Palpatine! May the force be with you, Max!
ENO has assembled a fine group of singers, yet all but one of them fail to engage completely with the audience. The exception is Gidon Saks' trenchantly sung Kaspar. He revels in all the spooky goings-on, sings powerfully and creates an indelible impression. I was looking forward to my first encounter with the much-acclaimed Scottish soprano, Lisa Milne, here making her ENO debut as Annchen. But, though she sings prettily enough, this is a rather ungrateful role. No doubt her prodigious talents will be shown off to better effect in Alcina this autumn. John Daszak phrases well, but both he and Alwyn Mellor do not possess the right voices for the roles of Max and Agathe; more dramatic heft is required. All the small parts are well taken, but unfortunately, this show still fails to deliver on stage what looked so promising on paper.