January 28, 2017
The Virginia Opera has taken on the project of introducing contemporary American audiences to one of the most influential masterpieces of opera, Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz”. The opera’s infectious melodies enrich a succession of serene arias and engaging ensembles, yet it is a work that has rarely been performed in the Western Hemisphere.
The Virginia Opera enlisted British director Stephen Lawless to create both a new production and new English translation of the quintessentially German, ghost story-inspired singspiel.
Several months ago I had discussed this project with Lawless [see Opera as Drama: An Interview with Director Stephen Lawless] and was intrigued by the Virginia Opera’s intention to revive interest in this neglected work. Even though I reside on the opposite Coast, I flew across country to the production’s premiere in Norfolk, and am delighted to report that the result was worth the effort.
Lawless moved the story from Weber’s Central European setting to a village in the forests of New York, noting the parallels between Freischütz’ haunted Wolf’s Glen and Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow of Headless Horseman fame. Irving’s villagers are Dutch immigrants, Lawless’ villagers are German émigré huntsmen and their families.
Weber’s opera centers on a skirmish in the eternal battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. In the opera, the agent for the Forces of Good is a Hermit (played in this production by Jake Gardner), the agent for Evil is the devil Samiel (also played by Gardner).
Corey Bix’ Max
The largest role in the opera, the huntsman Max, is sung by tenor Corey Bix. The role of Max requires a large voice with the weight and endurance we associate with the later composer Richard Wagner’s jugendlicher tenor roles. Bix proved up to the task.
To the character Max’ consternation, he, the community’s best marksman, has unexpectedly lost the preliminary rounds in an annual shooting contest whose main event prize would be the hand of the woman he loves.
In terror at the thought of losing his bride, Max becomes vulnerable to the huntsman Kasper’s suggestion that Max call upon supernatural dark forces at the Wolf’s Glen for aid.
[Below: Corey Bix as Max; edited image of a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Joseph Barron’s Kasper
The driving force behind the opera’s plot is Kasper, who is nearing the end of a three-year contract with the Forces of Evil, at whose conclusion he must either offer a suitable replacement for his service or descend into Hell for eternity.
Kasper’s escape strategy – to secure magic bullets from the devil Samiel, first for Max’ shooting contest opponent Killian, then for Max himself – is Kasper’s elaborate scheme to ensnare the unwitting Max into becoming Kasper’s replacement.
[Below: Kasper (Joseph Barron) announces the unexpected results of a round in the shooting contest; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Bass-baritone Joseph Barron, whose performance elsewhere I admired [Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012] made a strong impression as the villainous Kasper, both vocally and dramatically.
[Below: Kasper (Joseph Barron, left) has persuaded Max (Corey Bix, right) to join him in the haunted Wolf’s Glen to obtain magic bullets from a Devil’s minion; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Kara Shay Thomson’s Agathe
Max’ intended bride, the pure-hearted Agathe, was portrayed by soprano Kara Shay Thomson. Agathe’s lyrical music include two of the most ethereally beautiful arias in German opera.
Thomson performed these arias and her part in Weber’s finely crafted duets and trios with distinction.
[Below: Kara Shay Thomson as Agathe (and Aennchen (Katherine Polit, right); edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Jake Gardner’s Good Hermit and Evil Samiel
Jake Gardner, one of opera’s exemplary actor-singers, portrayed the point men on both sides of the good-evil battle lines. The devil Samiel is a spoken (at times shouted) role, whereas the good Hermit enlists Gardner’s secure bass-baritone.
[Below: Samiel (Jake Gardner) represents the forces of evil that have gathered at the Wolf’s Glen; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Gardner has a wide repertory of character roles in opera and musical theater presented by opera companies [see Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015 and Glimmerglass Festival’s Annual Salute to Broadway: Dwayne Croft in Vibrant, Affecting “Music Man” – July 24, 2012 for my accounts of a few such Gardner roles.
[Below: The hermit (Jake Gardner, center) representing the forces of good, blesses the future marriage of Agathe (Kara Shay Thomson, left) and Max (Corey Bix, right), providing Max remains on good behavior during a one year probation; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Katherine Polit’s Aennchen and Kevin Langan’s Kuno
Soprano Katherine Polit won audience sympathy in her soubrette role of Agathe’s companion, Aennchen. Polit’s duets with Thomson’s Agathe were affecting, and Aennchen’s aria about the family dog being mistaken for a ghost was amusingly sung.
[Below: Katherine Polit as Aennchen; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Veteran basso Kevin Langan was an authoritative Kuno, Agathe’s father, whose holds the hereditary title of Ranger.
[Below: Kevin Langan as the Ranger Kuno; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
Other cast members and musical performance
Trevor Neal was the huntsman Killian, who bested Max in the contest trials. Andrew Paulson was the Ottokar – in this production, the region’s Governor. Rachel Baunstein, Anna Feucht, Stephanie Marx and Christine Suits were the Bridesmaids.
The Virginia Symphony, led by Maestro Adam Turner, displayed a reverence for Weber’s score.
The overture and the opera as a whole have historical significance in the evolution of how such instruments as the woodwinds – particularly the oboe and clarinet – and French horns are used in opera composition. All these instruments contribute to the tonal colors that accompany the main themes of good and evil that recur throughout the opera.
[Below: Kilian (Trevor Neal, left) and the village women make fun of the failure of Max (Corey Bix, second from left) to win a single round in the shooting contest; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
The Virginia Opera Chorus has a dominant presence in the opera, memorable in the opening number in which it jeers the hapless Max and in the rousing Hunters’ chorus of the final act. Aaron Breed is Virginia Opera’s chorus master.
Stephen Lawless’ production
The choice of Lawless for rethinking how to present the overlooked masterpiece proved to be brilliant. The staging is fast-paced, the English translation by Dan Dooner and Lawless is clear and persuasive.
The overture begins with the stage behind a darkened scrim with woodland images. During the overture’s finale we are transported to the Annual Shooting contest in which Max and the huntsman Killian are engaged.
The scenes in the hunting lodge where Kuno, Agathe and Aennchen reside were represented by interior boxes that could be moved on or off the center stages
The rustic sets were by Lawless’ frequent collaborator, Belgian set designer Benoit Dugardyn.
[Below: the Benoit Dugardyn sets for the Virginia Opera production of “The Magic Marksman”; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]
The bright costumes were those of Costume Designer Sue Wilmington, the lighting, including the spooky Wolf’s Glen scene, was designed by Patricia Collins.
I found the final moments of Lawless’ production to be thought-provoking. He ends the opera with the villagers not only abolishing the series of contests but surrendering their hunting rifles. This act of surrender reminded me that Lawless recently created a new production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” for the Santa Fe Opera [Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016], that ends with the armies of the opposing sides laying down their arms, an outcome consistent with The Bard’s play on which the opera is based.
Lawless returns to the “disarmament” theme for the end of “The Magic Marksman”, even though, to me, the idea of hunters in the wilds of Central New York at the turn of the 19th century surrendering their rifles seems implausible. (This is my only quibble with Lawless’ inventive production.)
Stephen Lawless’ Virginia Opera “Magic Marksman” is a production that should help awaken interest in North America in a worthy opera.
I enthusiastically recommend the production, cast and opera both to the opera veteran and the person new to opera.