BWW Review: Heartbeat Opera's Take on Weber's FREISCHUTZ Hits the Mark
Since it's highly unlikely that the Met will take on Carl Maria von Weber's DIE FREISCHUTZ (frequently translated as THE MARKSMAN) anytime soon--or even in the lifetime of any baby born this year--we should be grateful to Heartbeat Opera for bringing it to New York audiences through December 15 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
In a rootin' tootin' version by Louise Proske (who also co-directed with Chloe Treat) it resets the piece from 16th century Bohemia to contemporary Texas (sets and costumes by Sara Brown and Beth Goldenberg, respectively, with Oliver Wason's creepily atmospheric lighting)--including some scary bits that translated very easily over those centuries. (The original text was by Friedrich Kind.) At Heartbeat, the dialogue was performed in English, while the arias and set pieces were in the original German.
The result: The chance to hear a score that features some great music very much worth catching up with, in a eerie production that kept my head swiveling like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," and a few laughs thrown in for good measure.
Though I may not be convinced that the slangy updating of the libretto (by Proske and Michael Attias) added as much to the experience as the company seemed to think, the mystical elements of the story worked perfectly well, right from the start of the show, when the main character, Max, the marksman of the title, has a disturbing dream. It wasn't long before I began thinking that some of Stephen King's scarier works would make excellent fodder for new opera. (Of course, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell already did a successfully scary take on King's THE SHINING.)
From a musical point of view, however, this FREISCHUTZ was pretty smashing, starting with the vibrant overture, which may be the most familiar part of the opera for many. Weber wrote in the German Romantic style that predated, and influenced, the young Richard Wagner.
Here, the score was arranged (and conducted) by Daniel Schlosberg, a performance artist in his own right, for a handful of instrumentalists and electronics, with some of the most imaginative doubling you'll ever hear from the pit band at an opera (eg, Clare Monfredo on cello and drums). Schlosberg and William Gardiner recomposed what is probably the opera's most notable scene, set in Wolf Canyon: seamlessly, effectively--and terrifyingly--done, with the casting of the bullets that let loose Max's inner demons.
The cast of singers (I heard the first of the two alternating groups of principals) were first rate, starting with big sound of tenor Ian Koziara as Max (with an impressive "Nein länger trag ich nicht die quallen"), here a Vietnam vet who longs to be sheriff but isn't considered macho enough for the job. He also longs to walk off into the sunset with Agathe (the fine-voiced soprano Summer Hassan, offering an excellent version of "Leise, leise fromme Weise"), daughter of the current lawman, Kuno (the excellent baritone Kevin McGuire).
Though he is known as a first-rate marksman, Max finds he's suddenly lost his mojo when it comes time to actually show off his shooting skills opposite his rival, Kaspar (the exciting bass-baritone Derrell Acon), thanks to the intervention of demon Samiel (the scarily compelling azumi O E, a notable dancer of the butoh style).
Other notable cast members were the lovely coloratura Jana McIntyre as Annchen, Agathe's close friend, one of those helping her prepare for her wedding and a splendid Eric Delagrange as Max's Shadow in the final scene (he also plays the Hermit), which ended the opera on a slightly confusing note that left some in the audience somewhat unsure whether the work was over.
Confusion or not, the audience walked away happy to have had the treat of meeting Weber's classic, live and in person--and to find out what happens when we make a deal with the devil...as if some of us Americans already know the consequences of that kind of bargain.
For more information about Heartbeart Opera's DIE FREISCHUTZ, running at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through the 15th on Manhattan's Lexington Avenue and East 25 Street, see the website.