Friday, 20 April 2012

Der Freischütz, Colin Davis, Barbican

How I'd looked forward to hearing Colin Davis conduct Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz at the Barbican, London. I love the opera passionately.  After last night's concert I listened again to Davis's 1993  recording, remembering it was quite good, though significantly it's one I rarely listen to. The absolute pinnacle is Carlos Kleiber against whom no-one else measures. So deliberately I blanked Kleiber out and listened to what Davis would show about the opera at this stage in his career. It's always invidious to compare recordings with live, and the Dresden Staatskapelle have Weber in their genes. But I wasn't expecting to hear Der Freischütz as polite English oratorio.

The Barbican audience applauded dutifully, because Sir Colin has earned his place as a national institution and shaped British music. He's the focus of a valedictory ten-concert series at the Barbican next year which will place him among the immortals. At his best, such as in last year's Prom Missa Solemnis, Davis can be brilliant, but not everyone should be expected to show brilliance in all things and at all times.

Part of the problem was that the spoken dialogue was excised in favour of spoken synopsis.  That's probably necessary for English audiences, especially those who've come to hear celebrity rather than the opera. But Weber's dialogue is almost as important to the piece as the orchestra and singing. The pungent repartee links intimately to the staccatos and darting rhythms in the music. Without dialogue, we're hearing the piece cut to shreds. Maybe that's not a problem since audiences are used to extracts these days, but it's an unhealthy way of listening.

Der Freischütz doesn't often get staged but is a classic because the drama is in the music. As the narrator (Malcolm Sinclair) said, the opera's set after the Thirty Years War, in a community that's known nothing but killing. While Davis's Dresden Overture had charm, which is valid, this time the Overture was so sedate it dragged. Tempi on their own mean little, but the lack of coherence was more worrying. The dances weren't charged with the vigourous energy with which they can be done, and the sudden flashes of woodwind didn't chill, like the spooks from the underworld.they represent.  Even the Wolf's Glen sounded like it had been paved over.

Similar decorum marked some of the singing. Simon O'Neill sang Max and Christine Brewer sang Agathe. Both pinched in tone, and tense, but O'Neill uses his voice effectively so it expresses character. Max is no hero, but a decent man trapped by superstitious tradition. Dramatically, O'Neill delivers. Brewer, though, sings Agathe as if she were a low level Isolde, minus the transcendant beauty. This Agathe doesn't have the vivid imagination that makes the character so charming, and her predicament so frightening.  Sally Mattthews's Ännchen has wit. She, and Lucy Hall singing the wreath song, brought much needed freshness and beauty.

Lars Woldt replaced Falk Struckmann at short notice but in some ways that was an advantage as he sang the role as it might have been in a more idiomatic performance. His brooding, menacing Kaspar suggests depths to the role which could be developed well elsewhere. He's barely 40 with a strong opera background. Remember the name, he's got potential. Gidon Saks was a darkly sexy Hermit, which again would be interesting in a thoughtful interpretation of this opera. Stephan Loges's experience enabled him to convincingly create the two very different parts of Ottokar and Zamiel. Martin Snell's Kuno had resonance. The choruses weren't tightly drilled, which was good because they sounded direct, like peasants should. The Huntsman's Chorus, however, could have used the energetic discipline of a march. On the other hand, that would have contradicted the overall flow of the performance. There might be more spark at Saturday's performance, but take it as it is, a memory of past glories. Which, in a sense, Der Freischütz might be. But in the opera, feudal superstitions are replaced by practical good sense.

Apparently this was being record for CD release, probably marketed to those who buy celebrity rather than music.


spontini said...

I very much enjoyed the performance. I buy music, not celebrity, and will definitely buy the CD.

Doundou Tchil said...

If you are interested in the music, it might be a better idea to buy Colin Davis's first recording made in 1993.