Gunshots and butoh. Drinking songs and a musical saw. Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, innovative in Berlin in 1821, points anew to the future in a compact, reimagined new production by Heartbeat Opera.
At the same time, the opera stays admirably on track, mostly respectful of its original conception. The music remains bold and striking, forward and diverse. The cast I saw on Dec. 5 (two casts alternate on odd and even dates through Dec. 15) is uniformly strong, in acting as well as in singing.
On reflection, I find the production isn’t as radical a re-conception as the Heartbeat Opera creative team might want us to believe, or as this New York Times article suggests. Heartbeat, the co-creators of the marvelous original chamber opera La Susanna (reviewed here), here transform the Baruch Performing Arts Center‘s smallish Rose Nagelberg Theater into a small American town in the era of the gunfighter. (Shades of the reimagined Oklahoma a mile uptown on Broadway?)
The mystical story that Weber and librettist Friedrich Kind adapted from a supernatural folk tale resettles pretty comfortably in the milieu of the American South, at least until the climactic final scene. At that point, the original Hermit character, fully redesigned here as “Max’s Shadow,” imposes his will with an air of war-crazed insanity – and a weapon from another time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even before the overture, sheriff’s deputy Max (tenor Casey Candebat in the performance I saw) has a bloody vision of his shooting-range target turning into his beloved fiancée Agathe. The artful staging goes on to create a modestly immersive experience that is, as a pure piece of theater, more than modestly absorbing.
The score, arranged by Daniel Schlosberg for a seven-piece band of strings, winds, keyboards, percussion, and sundry instruments, kicks in with the overture. And when the main action arrives, we’re in the midst of a celebration, in a yard strewn with Confederate symbology and cans of Budweiser. Max’s peers, led by Kilian (Quentin Oliver Lee in both casts), are bullying him relentlessly over the sudden loss of his shooting prowess. Lee immediately sets a high vocal bar with a strong baritone and charismatic persona as the plucking of a guitar reinforces the folksy American setting.
The celebration over, Max gives voice to his woes. Candebat’s superb tenor drew sympathy effortlessly. The demon Samiel makes its first appearance, represented by butoh dancer azumi O E in a scary performance that suggested to me a figure in a Japanese horror movie. (Of course, such figures descend from ancient archetypes.)
Max’s buddy Kaspar (Daniel Klein in a compelling performance) presents Max with the fateful way out of his quandary. If Max can’t regain his skills at the next day’s shooting competition, he won’t be allowed to marry Agathe. So they must go to dreadful Wolf Canyon at midnight and forge seven black-magic bullets. The first six can’t miss their targets. The seventh belongs to the devil, who can aim it where he will.
The ensuing scenes and arias hit home one after another. The spoken dialogue has been rendered into a not-always smooth mixture of colloquial and literary English. But the actors carry it off, notably through Klein’s blazing intensity in Kaspar and Max’s temptation scene and the women’s honest interactions. Kaspar’s dark vengeance aria contrasts with Agathe and Ännchen’s (Nicole Haslett) duet and Ännchen’s’s chipper cheer-up song. And Agathe’s aria “Leise leise fromme Weise” was just stunning, filled with successive eruptions of different emotions. It blossomed in Katherine Whyte’s performance into an absolute joy to ride through. In fact, Whyte was absolutely superb throughout.
The Wolf Canyon scene, the opera’s most famous, was cinematic before there was cinema. This version is a terrific maelstrom of terror. It’s where Heartbeat takes its biggest liberties, setting the dreadful bullet-casting scene to a partly atonal, partly electronic soundscape “collaboratively re-composed” by William Gardiner and Schlosberg. The music and lighting, azumi O E’s contorted dance, and Kaspar’s desperation to slip out of his own deal with the demon combine into a darkly dazzling sequence. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything Weber is likely to have imagined. But it’s solidly in the spirit of the piece.
Crazed visions mark the beginning of the second act (the production is staged in two acts) as Max takes his first three shots to strains of barrelhouse piano from the multi-talented Schlosberg (whose busy antics leading the band add a fresh and surprising element of action). The women lighten the mood with humor and grace as they help Agathe prepare for her wedding, with more wonderful music beautifully sung. Since we’re now in the second act, of course there’s another drinking song.
Dominating the long, confusing final scene is Max’s Shadow (a superb Eric Delagrange in both casts) commanding the action like a deus ex machina. Delagrange overcomes the weirdness of his character’s out-of-time getup and frightful demeanor with warm, intense singing as he writhes his way out of the confusion – ours and the other characters’ – to finally wrestle a conclusion to the tale. His superb bass cuts like a murderous hail of bullets, as this always relevant yet infrequently produced supernatural yarn spins its last yard.
Der Freischütz was and is more than a prelude to Wagner. It’s well worth experiencing for both its wonderful music and its cultural force, whether in a traditional production or in Heartbeat Opera’s newfangled revision. The latter runs through Dec. 15 at BPAC.