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Virginia Opera to make its mark with German opera 'Der Freischütz'

“It’s a piece about God and guns,” said Virginia Opera principal conductor and artistic advisor Adam Turner.

The opera to which he refers is “Der Freischütz”—“The Magic Marksman”—to be performed this weekend in Fairfax and in Richmond later in February.

“We decided to update the piece a little bit, set it in the early 19th century, maybe a village of German immigrants in Spotsylvania County—maybe Germanna,” Turner said.

 

The opera, less than 2 1/2 hours in length, will be performed in English, with supertitles projected over the stage in English during the arias.

“There is actually quite a lot of dialogue [in addition to the songs],” Turner said. “We commissioned a brand-new English translation for this production.”

A German opera by Carl Maria von Weber with a libretto by Friedrich Kind, “Der Freischütz” premiered in Berlin in 1821. It was an instant hit, with performances following in rapid succession throughout Europe. It was first performed in the United States in 1825.

Weber’s music was notably different from the style of his day. Very emotional and nationalistic, “The Magic Marksman” was among the first significant operas to introduce the romantic movement, and audiences responded enthusiastically. Later well-known romantic composers—particularly Wagner—were greatly influenced by Weber’s work.

The famous Wolf’s Glen scene has been described by music critics as “the most expressive rendering of the gruesome that is to be found in a musical score.”

“The music is so cinematic, you’ll really feel like you’re watching a movie,” Turner said.

The plot was inspired by a German folk legend about a talented sharpshooter, Max, who enters into a shooting contest, the outcome of which will determine both his future career and if he will be allowed to marry Agathe, the woman he loves. Although Max is tempted by an evil character to use magic bullets, good triumphs in the end and the lovers are united.

“[Weber] really knew how to write for the voice,” Turner said. “He was married to a soprano, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.”

Singing the part of Max is Corey Bix, returning to Virginia Opera after playing the spurned lover, Erik, in the company’s production of “The Flying Dutchman” last spring.

“I think people are going to go nuts for Max’s aria in the first act,” Turner said. “It’s about his inner struggle, how will he win the competition so he can marry his love.”

The part calls for what is musically known as a heldentenor, a male voice of great weight and sonority, particularly strong in the middle and bottom of the voice, yet with a powerful high range.

Bix, Turner said, who has had experience singing such roles throughout the world, sounds fabulous.

“He is eating the stage alive,” Turner said. “He really rings out over the orchestra, his sound is incredible.”

In her Virginia Opera debut is Kara Shay Thomson singing Agathe. Thomson has sung “Tosca” several times, also “Turandot” and other major roles for companies across the United States.

“When we heard her at our New York auditions we were blown away,” Turner said. “We thought, how did we not find her until now?”

Also, Turner said the chorus for this production is outstanding. “It is really one of the best choruses I’ve heard, and the orchestra is excellent,” he said.

He mentioned in particular the famous Huntsmen’s Chorus from Act 3, “With Princely Enjoyment and Manly Employment,” which is so popular it is often performed by itself as a concert piece, as is this opera’s overture.

“It’s rich with color, glorious,” Turner said. “The sonorities Weber comes up with orchestrally are absolutely incredible.”

Seeing this production could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since opera companies in the United States tend to overlook this piece. The last fully professional production here took place 45 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

“Other companies are really watching us, watching to see how well it’s received,” Turner said. “It’s a huge risk. But we feel like that’s part of our mission, to provide high-quality, engaging, diverse productions that should reach out to a broad audience.”

As a conductor, Turner said he loves directing both musical theater and opera precisely because of the great challenges involved—the incredible talent and athleticism of the musicians, the hours and hours of rehearsal, the set and technology, the script, the music, the costumes and props, all the millions of tiny details that make a production of this scale happen.

“The goal is for me to disappear, for it all to come together with one united voice, to have the power of what’s happening onstage unite so the audience escapes into it completely,” he said. “I love the thrill when it all comes together.”