Gardiner restores Berlioz's edition of Der Freischütz to the stage - thrillingly

The Gramophone Blog, by James Jolly (editor-in-chief of Gramophone), 12 April 2011

Weber Le Freischütz at Opéra Comique, Paris

When one composer provides commentary on another – as performer (think of Britten as pianist, Furtwängler, Bernstein and any number of others as conductor) or editor (Brahms and Mahler come to mind) – something magical invariably happens. And Berlioz, turning Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz into a French opera (rather unimaginatively translated as Le Freischütz!), did something rather wonderful – as Sir John Eliot Gardiner is currently revealing in performances at the Opéra Comique in Paris.

Weber’s original version, premiered in Berlin in 1821, was a Singspiel (like Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte: in other words with spoken dialogue linking the sung numbers), but when Berlioz created his version almost exactly 20 years later, not only did its language change but it became an opera, through-composed, with recitatives replacing the dialogue. And it works fantastically well – Berlioz’s imagination was clearly nourished by Weber’s devilish plot and hugely imaginative musical language, and his contributions fit seamlessly into the original. (And along the way you realise what a huge debt to Weber Berlioz owed, with his ability to create atmosphere through extraordinary orchestral colours – no wonder that the other Weber-Berlioz ‘collaboration’, Invitation to the Dance, sounds so good!) And the way Weber presents the key themes in the overture and then subtly introduces them surely prefigures Wagner's use of Leitmotif.

To hear this music played by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner’s ensemble for music of the 19th century and early 20th, is to be transported to a completely different world from the opera as played by, say, the Staatskapelle Dresden or Vienna Phil. It sounds genuinely ‘révolutionnaire’ and ‘romantique’. Der Freischütz is an opera infused with the hunt and Weber uses the horn section to thrilling effect – the Wolf’s Glen scene (or La Gorge aux Loups, the French suggesting an even more horrifying venue) positively crackled with malice – and the choral interjections, coming from all around us, were enough to raise goose flesh. And the ear-splitting shafts of lightning from the piccolo were almost visual in their intensity (no wonder half the orchestra sat with fingers in ears, as it must have been deafening in the pit!). And there were some terrific solo contributions – from cello, viola, clarinet and bassoon in particular. But it is the sound of period instruments that lends such an extra dimension to this music – there’s none of the smoothness and ease of modern instruments, instead there’s a rougher, more flavoursome edge that highlights the sheer originality of the writing and also heightens the sense of drama.

The singing was first rate too: Gidon Saks as the Mephistophelian Gaspard (aka Kaspar) was the real stand-out performance, his large, dark, perfectly steady bass voice easily filling the intimate space of the Opéra Comique. Andrew Kennedy as Max sang with great elegance and palpable humanity, and Matthew Brook made an impressive Kouno. And even the small role of the Hermit was taken superbly by Luc Bertin-Hugault, a kind of deus ex machina appearance to stop Max’s punishment outweighing the crime. The most striking thing about the two female roles, Agathe and Annette (ex-Aennchen) was that it made them more rounded as characters – in the Singspiel, Agathe can merely seem rather put-upon and wan, and Aennchen insufferably perky. But here, Sophie Karthäuser was superb as Agathe, rising to real heights of eloquence and fire, and Virginie Pochon was a delightful Annette – and she was a pretty nifty dancer too. And talking of dancing, is there nothing the Monteverdi Choir can’t turn its hand (or foot) to? Not only were they on characteristically magnificent form vocally, but they acted and danced as if that’s what they do all the time – all credit to Cécile Bon’s choreography.

The only completely spoken role remained that of the devil Samiel, played with malevolent understatement by the diminutive Christian Pélissier. And Gardiner restored a few spoken sentences to Gaspard at the climax of his scene – to great effect.

The production by Dan Jemmett, in sets by Dick Bird and costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka, was updated to the 1920s – gramophone players and Oxford pants were very much in evidence. It served the opera well, never flying in the face of the plot, and was always easy to follow. The opening act was set in a fun fair with a shooting gallery dominating the proceedings; Agathe and Annette lived in a kind of period motor-home (though the tyres looked rather late 20th century to my eye!). The Wolf’s Glen scene was particularly striking with huge, thorny branches lowered down from on high, and Gaspard doing his black magic in a hole at the centre.

Following his superb Carmen (now on DVD) and Pélleas et Mélisande at the Opéra Comique, Gardiner’s three-year project is complete. Even at the risk of wounding national pride by having a load of Brits revealing how to do French music, I do hope they sign these superb musicians on for another stint. Even in these cash-strapped times, the French seem to find money for the Arts on a scale that never fails to impress. And Gardiner – recently named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur – and his crew never fail to deliver. And that, surely, is the ‘value for money’ box – so beloved of Messrs Sarkozy and Cameron – well and truly ticked!