Classical: The whole shooting match

Weber's brilliantly original opera, Der Freischutz, thrilled the German Romantic imagination and showed the way forward to Wagner. So why has it taken Mark Elder and David Pountney so long to bring it to the Coliseum?
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The Independent Culture
RUMOURS are rife in St Martin's Lane. Ghosts, spooks and spectres are afield, eerie whispers are abroad. Wild huntsmen have broken loose. The uncanny, the ghoulish and the supernatural are poised to be unleashed. Mark Elder, justly celebrated for his recent Parsifal and Tristan at English National Opera, and set to take on the conductorship of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester next autumn, teams up tonight with his old partner-in-mischief, David Pountney, the former director of productions, in their first new joint venture at their old stomping ground since their celebrated reign at the London Coliseum ended in 1993.

The excuse for reviving this brilliant, unholy alliance - once dubbed the "Powerhouse" - could scarcely be more apt: a shivering new production by Pountney - the first for the company since Sadler's Wells days (the UK has seen a mere half-dozen professional productions in the last 50 years) - of Carl Maria von Weber's ground-breaking German opera (or Singspiel, with passages of spoken text) Der Freischutz: the Marksman or Freeshooter - as it were, the Man with the Golden Gun.

"I can scarcely describe the thunderous reception," Weber wrote to his wife Caroline from London early in l826, after conducting a concert of Freischutz extracts. "My overture was encored, as were several of the other numbers. Everything went off brilliantly, and there was the same wild enthusiasm at the end. What warmth - it cheered my heart."

Weeks later, the 39-year-old composer was dead, his career severed in its prime by consumption. It was left to the young Wagner to escort his ashes home to Dresden, and to build on the hopes of a German romantic opera tradition for which Weber, above all others, had striven.

Originally composed for the newly opened Prussian Court Theatre in Berlin, Der Freischutz is not one for the faint-hearted. Grim tales of men condemned for casting Freikugeln - magic bullets which cannot miss their mark, fashioned with the help of dark, unearthly powers - can be traced back to 1710 or earlier (the opera is set just after the ravages of the Thirty Years' War). But it was the appeal of the ghoulishly supernatural to early l9th- century sensibilities, and in particular the appearance in 1810 of Apel and Laun's Gespensterbuch, or book of ghost stories - which fired a flurry of German staged versions.

Yet it was Weber's nerve-tingling score, to a creaky yet attractively- cobbled, symbol-laden libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind, which captured the German imagination, and has done so ever since. Its influence was incalculable. Weber flung wide the door to Wagnerian music drama, foreshadowing The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin and the Ring Cycle itself; Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler and Debussy admired Freischutz's dramatic ingenuity, its uncanny power of suggestion, its harmonic inventiveness, and the sheer artistry by which, in Weber's hands, a simple moral fable acquires subtle psychological undercurrents that raise it far above the ordinary. Audiences have shivered ever since to the frissons of the snarling Wolf's Glen scene, with its devilish chicanery and bizarre visual effects, freed from mere kitsch melodrama by the original orchestral colouring with which Weber invests every aspect of the story.

Why didn't the Powerhouse team get round to Freischutz sooner? "Well, we talked about it," confesses Mark Elder. "In a sense it was the one that got away. It certainly belongs with ENO - it's not a piece a British audience would especially benefit from hearing in German. It needs to be accessible. It's in essence a Volksoper, a Folk Opera, in direct line of descent from The Magic Flute, just as Agathe's music has a serene beauty a stage removed from Pamina's.

"It's important, I think, to bear in mind several things about this opera. It was highly topical - Germany was still disunited, reeling from the impact of the Napoleonic Wars, just as the story is set (at one remove) at the close of the Thirty Years' War. Max, the hero, is the golden boy, he's going to get the Ferrari and inherit the estate. But what's often forgotten is that Kaspar, the villain, who's survived the war but come back horribly maimed and disfigured, was ditched for Max by Agathe. "Freischutz is, at root, a fervently Christian piece: it has an inner spiritual depth, and that's something any production has to make very clear, as the opposite pole to the chicanery of Samiel (the Devil). Agathe and Kaspar, in battling over Max, represent these warring opposites. We see a community which needs to make a journey together, a hunting society that has to leave its old ways and move on. Everyone is changed by the disastrous shooting contest and the Hermit's redeeming appearance at the end. And the score hints at this brilliantly, where Weber reintroduces a fragmentary flute motif which does a tiny flickering dance near the close.

"One thing I'm especially at ease with is that all the voices in this production seem fitting: they are younger, and lyric, not dark (for instance the tenor John Daszak, who sings Max). I think that's a good thing: this is not a heavy piece, it's volatile, it's gutsy, and it underlines the generation gap. It's right that Annchen [the soubrette part, sung by Lisa Milne] should be young and spirited. Kaspar [Gidon Saks] brings a sensational power and energy of declamation to his role. And I hope we can also get across the fact that Bel Canto applies to German as well as Italian opera.

"I love Der Freischutz," Elder admits, "just as I adore Weber's Euryanthe [which he conducted in a memorable South Bank concert performance a few years ago.]. "It has a grittiness, an earthiness that I think is wonderful. It's a very horny opera, as befits the rural scene. Weber has a winning way with melody: he sculpts the music to the audience's hearts and minds - there's a genuine Weber sound that I think is truly theatrical. The overture is an extraordinarily graphic symphonic poem; and his portrayal of manipulative Satanic power is chilling. It's like a malign 36-hour build-up to a crisis. And it's not clear until the last moment that everything will work out.

"We've retained as much of the spoken dialogue as we can: it's in old German, quite difficult to make convincing, yet David's new translation feels vividly relevant and alive. What's been most thrilling is to discover, by doing it in the theatre, is not just Weber's phenomenal sonic originality - no wonder Berlioz was bowled over - but what a great musical dramatist he is. The sheer bravery of the way he lets the orchestra speak is something I hope will come out in Dulux colours.'."

Der Freischutz opens tonight at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2. Box office: 0171 632 8300. Further performances on 15, 18, 22, 24, 30 Sept and 2,5, 8, 15 Oct